You Say You Want a Revolution

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan on how he learned to love the 'goddam hippies'--and why their protests aren't going to end.

A lot of us have to confess something about the Occupy Wall Street protests: we have a hippie problem. As a post-boomer, I've been trained to giggle at them my whole life. And anyone who has had to listen to an unsought diatribe about corporations in a line at Target, or has a friend who's been trying to talk you into going to Burning Man for a decade, will know what I'm talking about. The crustier edges of the fringe can be as smug as they are alienating--from replacing applause in Zuccotti Park with silent finger-wiggling to the occasional, asinine assertion that the U.S. government is a greater evil than Al Qaeda. I have to say I feel exactly the same ambivalence toward the Tea Partiers, with their strange 18th-century costumes, occasional racist diatribes, and gun-toting. Their cultural signifiers distract from their message--which is diffuse and vague enough to begin with. Before too long, I find myself inclined to move on, to zoom out.

And yet this time, the goddam hippies, as South Park's Eric Cartman famously calls them, have slowly drawn me back in. Maybe it was seeing a more diverse crowd in D.C. than I expected, or absorbing online testimonies from 99 percenters, or reading yet another story about how corrupt the banking system has become (Citigroup was the latest to have me fuming). Maybe it was seeing the same kind of phenomenon popping up in Frankfurt and Madrid or Tel Aviv or outside St. Paul's Cathedral in London. From the massive crowds in Madrid, bursting at one point into a mass singing of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," to the tent cities in Israel, bringing right and left together against poverty, it all suggested a much deeper shift in consciousness than a mere pop-cultural fad. So somewhere along the line, my skepticism began to falter. And in a strange kind of way, Occupy Wall Street made me think more fondly of the Tea Party as well.

The theme that connects them all is disenfranchisement, the sense that the world is shifting deeply and inexorably beyond our ability to control it through our democratic institutions. You can call this many things, but a "democratic deficit" gets to the nub of it. Democracy means rule by the people--however rough-edged, however blunted by representative government, however imperfect. But everywhere, the people feel as if someone else is now ruling them--and see no way to regain control. In Europe, you see millions unemployed because of a financial crisis that began thousands of miles away in the U.S. real-estate market--and grim austerity being imposed to save a currency union that never truly won mass democratic support in the first place. In the U.S., the hefty majority for sweeping reform behind Barack Obama's victory in 2008 has been stopped in its tracks by slightly more than half of one House in the Congress and by a historically unprecedented filibuster in the Senate. Even when it is perfectly clear what the only politically viable, long-term solution is to our debt crisis--a mix of defense and entitlement cuts and tax increases--it is beyond our democratically elected leaders to reach a deal. In fact, one major party has gone on record declaring that it would risk national default rather than cede a millimeter on taxes. The Tea Partiers too are revolting against a Republican establishment that overspent and overborrowed throughout the Bush-Cheney years, and treated principled conservative critics as traitors or irrelevant. Bush and Cheney also failed to do what any viable government must: secure the border so that it can recognize who is a citizen and who is not. Members of the Tea Party too feel disenfranchised and alienated--from a popular culture that seems hostile to traditional ways of life to a political system so in hock to special interests that pork and partisanship triumph over sane budgeting time after time after time. …