Occupy Wall Street and the Return of Law and Order Politics

As city after city confronts Occupy protestors, conservatives are trying to make civil unrest into an anti-Obama campaign issue


As Occupiers from Oakland and Atlanta to New York City and Washington, D.C., have proven themselves both too powerless to prevent the encroachment of crime in their encampments and powerful enough to repeatedly confront police, the president's fiercest critics on the right are uniting around a potentially powerful new election-year theme: Barack Obama can't preserve law and order.

Critics of the conservative media have long complained of a perpetual outrage machine that says anything to see Democrats suffer at the polls. But today, they should take a careful look at the way the Occupy movement is helping to pipe the law-and-order message of the conservative counter-establishment back into the heart of the mainstream GOP.

Rather than the triumph of the lunatic fringe or a regression to some paranoid mean, the move marks a return of a core issue for the modern Republican Party. Republicans are justified in expecting electoral success when Americans worry about the government's ability (and willingness) to prevent, control, and punish social unrest.

Amid a growing chorus of conservative criticism, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose on November 15th to demonstrate that ability. At one o'clock in the morning, the NYPD told the Occupiers at Zuccotti Park to immediately remove all tents, sleeping bags, and belongings from the campsite -- that is, to turn Zuccotti from a campsite back into a park. "Many protesters," Bloomberg explained in the press conference that followed, "peacefully complied and left." With sanitation crews in tow, police "assisted in removing any remaining tents and sleeping bags," arresting dozens in the process. Urging his audience to "make no mistake -- the final decision was mine," Bloomberg justified the crackdown explicitly in terms of law and order: "We must never be afraid to insist on compliance with our laws," he said. "The First Amendment gives every New Yorker the right to speak out -- but it does not give anyone the right to sleep in a park or otherwise take it over to the exclusion of others -- nor does it permit anyone in our society to live outside the law."

Bloomberg recognized that local pressure was reaching a tipping point, from business and government to popular sentiment. But his abrupt response perhaps also reflects the uncomfortable national exposure trained on him by the conservative media. Bloomberg's response to Zuccotti -- or lack thereof -- had become the ongoing news hook for right-of-center stories and editorials lambasting failed government as hallmark of the Obama era. The mayor's inaction swiftly sped the anti-Occupy meme up the ladder of the conservative media. In the predawn hours of November 1st, Andrew Breitbart became the first to bring grassroots conservative disgust over reports of violence at Occupy camps before the big conservative media. "Rapes, Gropes, and Assaults, Oh My," read the headline of his post. "Mayor Bloomberg, Shut Down Zuccotti Park!" Accompanied by the first of several videos obtained from an activist conducting dismaying interviews on location, Breitbart demanded that Bloomberg stop "allowing New York's inmates to run the asylum" -- a "bad example that is being repeated across the country, with dozens of known victims."

On November 3rd, the New York Post followed suit, running its own editorial announcing it was "Time to throw the bums out:"

If they choose not to leave -- which they probably won't -- then Bloomberg needs to instruct the NYPD to clean the mess up. Today wouldn't be a day too soon.

Only two days later, the editors of National Review put the stamp of the conservative establishment's approval on the ultimatum: "Mr. Mayor, Tear Down Those Tents." And if Bloomberg himself wouldn't do it, well, "[i]t matters not who makes the first move, so long as the last move is the striking of the tents along Trotsky Alley."

Notably, the blame for the mess at Zuccotti broadened the closer the story got to the center of Republican power -- and in only a matter of days. Breitbart took the relatively narrow approach of using direct, unmediated video interviews with dismayed Occupiers themselves to advocate an end to Bloomberg's lenience, which functioned, he argued, as a model of governmental negligence that "set the stage" for "patterns" of "chaos and crime" across America.

Expanding the critique, the New York Post opined that "[w]hat began as a credible protest against bank bailouts, crony capitalism and the like has, in large measure, been hijacked by crazies and criminals." Bloomberg needed to stand "firm in the face of the firestorm that surely will ignite" when the "party" was finally "over" -- a firestorm, to be sure, of proportions as national as the new issue that Occupy had unleashed: not the corrupt relationship between big finance and big government, but the questionable relationship between the perpetrators of public disorder and the out-of-towners -- "radicals" and "manipulators in the labor unions seeking to capitalize on the 'occupation.'"

By the time National Review had thought things through -- again, in less than a week -- Bloomberg's tolerance was seen as a response to America's "community organizer in chief."

Hoovervilles, the unfortunately named shantytowns that dotted the country during the Depression, were places of desperation. But the tent city (Obamaville?) that has sprung up in Zuccotti Park is something else altogether.

These tent-dwellers, the editorial argued, were remarkably well-fed and well-appointed. A risk-averse Bloomberg may have been the proximate cause of Zuccotti Park's decadence and depravity, the editors said -- but the root cause was now identified as Barack Obama's policies, both active and passive.

With lightning speed, the unfolding Occupy saga had succeeded in bringing together the two great sources of traditional politically-expressed conservative contempt. Americans on the right but outside the establishment tend toward a ruggedly individualistic critique of hipsters, hippies, and the like -- people they see as self-entitled, self-pitying layabouts who overindugle in forced idealism to distract themselves from just how good they have it. For more establishment conservatives, that cultural angle is eclipsed by a hatred of bad policies, badly conceived -- the fruit of leaders as enamored of utopian social change as the bureaucratic, technocratic expertise they believe can create it. With the Occupy movement, cast as the living embodiment of what Obama's rule has wrought, the two critiques became flip sides of the same coin.

Enter Republican presidential history. This isn't the first time the establishmentarians and anti-establishmentarians of the right have united around a powerfully resonant common cause (instead of having messy, divisive arguments on topics like immigration or spending). Politically-minded Americans left, right, and center are accustomed to thinking of Ronald Reagan's landslide elections as the archetype of this sort of Republican victory -- a broad-based coalition united behind the familiar claim that only Republicans can be trusted to keep the American economy humming.

A better example of this classic GOP electoral sweet spot, however, can be found in Richard Nixon's campaigns. As powerful a force as economic stagnation may be, the "great silent majority" is not composed of citizens roused from the pattern of their workaday lives by the specter of two percent growth in GDP. Nixon called on the silent majority to support his policy in Vietnam -- but hinted at a deeper problem by saying that "North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that."

It's a line that only makes sense in the domestic context of the tumult of the '60s: riots and street protests; political violence; disillusioned radicalism; more heinous crimes committed more often, and with, seemingly, a more casual attitude than ever. It was this collective self-humiliation that gave sudden rise to neoconservatism, which Irving Kristol almost literally described as the disposition of a liberal who had been "mugged by reality."

In neoconservatism, the disgust familiar to the grassroots conservative fused with the alarm of the intellectual who agreed after all with Russell Kirk that order was foundational, and "the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night." The persistence of the neoconservatives through several "waves" of power and preoccupation should not be allowed to obscure the central fact about its success as a political movement -- that its heart and soul was its emphasis on law and order, and its most damning charge against the political left was its inability to keep America from falling prey to the worst among us.

In that sense, what was true about the birth of neoconservatism is true about the staying power of the GOP. Though not singlehandedly responsible for Reagan's rise, the neoconservatives dramatized exactly how it was that a new Republican majority was to be formed, and how and why it would govern. The longing for law and order that gave us the Nixon years furnished the Reagan years with a new establishment.

Republicans (like Eisenhower) can win the White House when voters tire of political dynasties or (as with both Bushes) when voters get excited about them. But nothing unites the right in a close election like the prospect of the country falling into disarray. That's all the more true when a Democrat can so readily be cast as watching passively from the White House as his ideological fellow travelers proactively spread mayhem.

How prominent that argument becomes will depend in part on how close the election seems. Law and order may be the pessimistic promise at the core of the modern the Republican Party, but economic prosperity is the optimistic cherry on top. Conservatives outside the establishment may focus on the liberty value of powering through tough times, or hacking away at the federal hydra, but the Republican establishment insists for electoral reasons on accentuating positive feelings through affirmative policies. Aspirational claims about what kind of economy Republicans can deliver once set to work in the halls of power make for a warmer, fuzzier message -- just the kind party establishments like to win on.

There's something of a paradox at work here. The worse things get for Obama on the economic front, the more likely the GOP may be to stick to its message of getting America moving again, and the less likely to reach for the law and order cudgel. Even if conservatives succeed in hanging the blame for Zuccotti and everything after around the neck of the president, the upshot may be a shinier, happier GOP than ever (led by Mr. Can-Do himself, Mitt Romney).

But beneath the bunting and confetti of another sunny-side-up national campaign, a deeper paradox looms. For all its devotion to pro-order domestic policies, first-wave neoconservatism has regained its relevance on the right because America confronts a new era of deepening inequality, worsening stratification, fragmenting families, weakening social mobility, and a failing criminal justice system. The law and order charge draws its power from the growing recognition that many economic indicators can go up while we seem to peer down into a growing number of sinkholes in the general welfare.

Left untreated by an overconfident Republican establishment, conservative concern on this count probably won't materialize into the oft-mentioned but rarely-seen grassroots third-party challenge. But it will dishearten and divide the right at the very moment that party leaders want energy and unity -- and discipline. If the persistence of Romney at the top of the presidential pack symbolizes the limits of the anti-establishment right, the continued rise of law and order rhetoric in the mainstream GOP is symptomatic of establishment fears of their own increasingly disorderly and disobedient base.

Image credit: Lucas Jackson/Reuters