WASHINGTON — The Occupy movement is preoccupied.
In October, when liberal activists gathered in Washington, they had hopes that the nascent Occupy Wall Street movement would become the left’s answer to the tea party.
But this time around — the annual Take Back the American Dream Conference was moved up to June this election year — the Occupy encampments are gone, and participants in the conference were pondering what went wrong. Or, as activist Van Jones put it to them, what has become of “the voice that’s been missing.”
Jones, an Obama administration official who resigned under pressure because of his far-left positions, is a fixture at the annual gatherings and a fiery orator. But this version of his yearly pep talk was laced with disappointment. “I’m watching that movement that inspired the world … that stunned the world, in the moment of maximum peril now sit down,” he lamented at the opening session, where half of the 500 seats were filled.
Suffering Americans, he went on, “need a movement that is willing to stand with them — and yet there is this reluctance. We saw in Wisconsin what happens when we put our minimum against our opponents’ maximum. … Are we going to let the tea party govern America?”
Jones was preaching to the choir. But surveying the demoralized state of the left, it’s not unreasonable to think that his question will be answered in the affirmative. The failed gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin showed that momentum is against Democrats and their allies, and the still-lumbering economy has depressed President Obama’s supporters.
Jones himself caused a stir recently for saying the left feels “crushed” by Obama and is “pissed off.” He revived that criticism Monday, noting that “this administration has deported more people than George W. Bush.”
Robert Borosage, whose Campaign for America’s Future puts on the annual conference, encouraged the activists to take the long view, likening their position to that of progressives in the late 19th century. “Now we are back to that same kind of inequality, that same kind of robber-baron money politics,” Borosage said from a stage festooned with the words “99% Power” and other slogans. “And what’s exciting is we’ve seen the first stirrings in Wisconsin and Ohio and Occupy Wall Street, which spread across the country like wildfire.”
The Wisconsin drubbing was a “stirring”? And Occupy Wall Street? It did spread — but the fire quickly died.
Nelini Stamp, an Occupy leader, spoke at one of the sessions about how the movement went from a day in September when “all of a sudden something happened” to the “dismantling of the parks, city by city.” Stamp described the events of the fall as “a moment in time, and that moment sparked a movement.”
But that movement, by most indications, lacks the energy it once had. Sarita Gupta, with the labor-backed Jobs with Justice, told the conferees that she is looking for alternatives to “getting stuck in these corporate fights that at the end of the day aren’t breaking through.”
She held up a proposed alternative: a poster labeled “Greg Penner.” “Who knows who Greg Penner is in this room?” she asked.
Nobody raised a hand. “All right. You should,” she said, telling them he is on various corporate boards.
The moderator, Amanda Devecka-Rinear of National People’s Action, said the movement can claim some success because even the Onion had an article about income inequality. “When you begin to see it everywhere, you know you’ve really broken through,” she said, before adding: “I don’t know if the Onion counts as everywhere, but I like the Onion.”
Who doesn’t? But the humor newspaper is no substitute for a mass movement. Jones, in his speech to the conferees, pleaded with the activists to be as “courageous and determined” as the Occupy movement was, but he needled the left for being soft, comparing today’s activists unfavorably with those of the civil rights era. “They were beaten fighting for change. Some went to jail fighting for change. Some were murdered,” he said. “We’ll quit over a really mean tweet.”
Jones urged them to use their heads, even if their hearts aren’t in it. “If we just support the president, just vote for Democrats, we don’t get what we want,” he said. “But if we don’t, our opponents get power and decimate us. Can we put our thinking caps on now?”
Surely Jones knows that it’s hard to put on a thinking cap when you’re in the fetal position.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.