From this perspective, OWS has arisen not because of the left's activism, but despite it. Focusing on electoral victories and legislative accomplishments, the left has failed to push an effective populist movement, focusing its energy more on social issues than economic ones. Democratic leaders have stayed at arm's length from the party's activist base for fear of being stained by their perceived political excesses (a position that has rightly alienated a generation of liberals). Considering these larger failures of the left, it seems almost appropriate that OWS has come about in such an organic and ad hoc manner.
It raises the question of what this all means for American politics and, in particular, next year's presidential election. There is certainly the possibility that the demonstrators, many of whom are firmly ensconced on the fringes of American politics, will spark a backlash or that the movement, which still lacks a clear agenda, will fizzle out.
But there is another real possibility – that OWS will affect the near-term trajectory of American politics. While many of the protesters are unhappy with the current progressive president, their grievances and demands are very much at one with Obama's emerging re-election strategy.
The Occupiers have called themselves the other 99% – to contrast themselves from the richest 1%. For a president intent on running as an economic populist, a populist political movement might just be what the doctor ordered. No doubt Obama would have liked to see a movement like this a few years ago; it might have helped him pass his agenda through a recalcitrant Congress, but, hey, better late than never (and on this, he is hardly blameless).
Not surprisingly, the Republican response to the protests has been one of dismissal, even contempt. House majority leader Eric Cantor called the Occupiers "mobs". Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney has accused them of "class warfare" (a charge clearly meant as an insult though it's one the protesters would gladly embrace). Presidential contender Herman Cain went further and called them "anti-American".
But Republicans may be underestimating the power of the Occupiers' message. Elizabeth Warren, a darling of the left and a Democratic Senate candidate in Massachusetts, was recently spoofed in an ad pushed on YouTube by the state's Republican party. She is portrayed as a vindictive and profane partisan. The "fake Warren" suggests that if elected she would propose legislation that would allow every American to go to Wall Street and put their foot in a particularly sensitive area of the male anatomy. This is seen by Massachusetts Republicans as a liability for Warren.
But perhaps the opposite is true. If one surveyed the American people I'd imagine a good number of them would relish the opportunity to kick Wall Street in the groin. If OWS continues, they might just get their metaphorical wish.