walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: November 2, 2011

We are awash in movements. The Arab Spring is one long series of movements, like a row of candles, each one igniting the next one in the row—Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, then back to Benghazi, and so on across the Middle East. Even Israel has caught a spark, as protesters camped out on Dizengoff Boulevard in Tel Aviv in a surreal imitation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square—except that these people were not (or not yet) trying to overthrow the government, but just protesting the cost of living, unemployment, and the loss of kibbutz egalitarianism supposedly caused by the “neoliberal” economy. Once again high hopes for democracy and development are invested in these movements, as they were some years ago in various explosions of “people power” (first so called, I think, in the Philippines, when a popular revolt overthrew the Marcos regime) and in the “color revolutions” following the collapse of the Soviet empire.

And now we have movements in America as well. First came the Tea Party, exploding in rallies all over the country. It was clearly a phenomenon on the right of the political spectrum, hardly reminiscent of the Woodstock generation. Its mostly middle-aged demonstrators for some reason make me think of enraged Midwestern funeral directors. At first there was something refreshing about these people. For once these were people on the right concerned with issues north of the navel, like government spending and the national debt. As the Tea Party became a major force in the Republican Party, the sense of freshness quickly dissipated. A doctrinaire fanaticism against even one dollar of additional taxes repeatedly brought the country to the brink of economic catastrophe. This constitutes a more immediate threat than fanaticism against abortion or same-sex marriage. Actually, it turns out that the two fanaticisms overlap in the Tea Party itself and in the minds of Republican presidential candidates who, in the depressing lineup of the so-called “debates” (a misnomer if ever there was), spout sound bite after sound bite endorsing zero taxes and “traditional family values”. The Tea Party has become a well-organized constituency in right-of-center politics, thus raising the question whether it can still be called a movement at all.

The left must have felt deprived. After all, movements had been its property for decades, the big one of the 1960s still haunting its imagination. So there is a palpable sense of relief in left-of-center circles that, by golly, they now have a movement of their own. Occupy Wall Street is catching on, from sea to shining sea, raising hopes in the Democratic Party that 2012 may not be its year of electoral doom after all. Of course those of us who remember the 1960s have a twilight-zone experience of time travel, the pseudo-revolutionaries of that period reincarnated on today’s streets—the same young people, it seems, camped out with their sleeping bags and guitars, mouthing the same mindless slogans against capitalism and “the system”. But of course it is not the same young people, but their children and (more likely) grandchildren trying to relive the excitement of a supposedly heroic age. Here and there one can still see grandpa himself, no doubt swallowing pills supplied by Medicare (thanks to George W. Bush), his sparse grey hair defiantly tied in a ponytail. It was reported that a lending library was set up for the campers in downtown Manhattan. The books most in demand were by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky (who said that young people today have no interest in ancient history?).

I am not idiosyncratic in my belief that the health of American democracy depends on a vital center, spread across the two major political parties, thus marginalizing the extremes to their right and left. Since this center is not much visible today, I look hopefully for signs that it is still alive. I periodically check two publications, The New Republic and National Review, which to me represent the (relatively) sane sectors of, respectively, the American left and right encampments.

TNR pleasantly surprised me. In its issue of November 3, 2011, it announced on its cover page an editorial entitled “The Left takes to the Streets”. The editors admit that at first they reacted positively to the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, as did Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi: “We too now have a movement!” Then they had second thoughts, as must Democratic leaders who recall what happened to their party in the 1972 elections after they embraced the mystique of the streets. First reaction: “At first blush, it would be difficult not to cheer the protesters…. because they have chosen a deserving target. Wall Street should be protested.” But then second thoughts: The movement is criticized for its undifferentiated attack on capitalism and its suspicion of normal democratic politics —“an air of group-think …. that is, or should be, troubling to liberals”. It would be nice if liberals admitted that the current economic crisis began in the housing industry, and was not only the result of Wall Street greed, but also of government policies pressuring banks to give mortgages to people who could not afford them. Nevertheless—thank you, New Republic!

National Review was not surprising. Its issue of October 31, 2011, contained a full-blown assault on the Occupy movement announced on the cover, “No Tea Party”, with an editorial and two articles. Needless to say, there was no initial empathy. The running headings give the thrust of the assault: “A Witch Hunt on Wall Street”. “If this rabble stands for anything, it is the avoidance of unpleasant work and the satisfaction of emotions that are adolescent at best and very often pre-adolescent.” “Democrats look at the radicals with a parent’s love, seeing mobilizing power that will yield electoral victory.” The editorial grudgingly admits that there is a justified concern over what it calls “the Wall Street-Washington axis”, but says that this is no reason to hold back on scorn for the protesting radicals. It would be nice if NR-type conservatives paid more attention to the Wall Street component of the “axis” (not to mention the reckless spending of the last Republican administration), but it will be clear from what I have written above that I have no problem with the scorn.

But what is “a movement” anyway?

It is no accident that the media coverage of movements is full of crowd scenes, be it in Cairo or in Lower Manhattan. Gustave LeBon (1841-1931) is an (I think, deservedly) neglected early French sociologist. He had some pretty outlandish ideas about the psychology of women and “savages”, but in 1895 he published one influential and quite interesting book, titled The Crowd in the English translation. It opened up a whole field of studies of crowd behavior and, by extension, of modern mass movements. LeBon’s key idea can be simply stated: Called by him “the psychological law of mental unity”, it asserts that the crowd creates a sort of collective mind, which is impulsive, impervious to reason and potentially murderous. Put in different terms: The crowd is inherently de-individuating, dismantling the moral restraints of civilization and reverting to a primitive state of unquestioned solidarity. There is a lethal progression from crowd to mob to lynch mob.  In a telling example, LeBon describes the massacre of aristocratic families—men, women and children—in the course of a mob tribunal during the French Revolution.

Whatever reservations one may have about aspects of LeBon’s thought, his depiction of crowd behavior is useful for an understanding of movements. A crowd, in its literal meaning, is a transitory phenomenon: Crowds assemble, crowds disperse. There are some crowds that retain this transitory character, for example crowds at a sports event or a rock concert. (Though one might ask whether, for example, the half-joking designation of Boston as “the Red Sox nation” already transcends the transitoriness.) Also, some crowds have no purpose beyond its immediate occasion—say, watching the baseball game or swaying to the rock music. Other crowds have a purpose beyond the immediate occasion—say, the storming of the Bastille as the prelude to a revolution. Such a purpose obviously requires an extension of the crowd experience over a period of time. I think this helps to define what a movement is: A movement is the preservation of a crowd experience over time—with precisely the social-psychological characteristics described by LeBon.

There have been crowds and movements throughout history. There may even be biological roots of this fact. Chimpanzees, our closest anthropoid relatives, engage in group dancing if faced with danger. So do tribal warriors as they go into battle. Such behavior is “primitive” simply because it goes back to the most archaic forms of human experience. By the same token, it is behavior suffused with religious symbols: The individual surrenders his separateness to the sacred unity of the group, an experience often including possession by a divine being. A prototypical case of this is the frenzy of a crowd possessed by Dionysus, classically portrayed in Euripides’ play The Bacchae. (Not accidentally, this particular crowd engages in a savage murder.) But in terms of modern movements an important case is that of the German Jugendbewegung, literally “youth movement”. The German word “bewegt”, like the English “moved”, has two meanings: an object or individual in physical motion, but also an individual feeling a strong emotion. The German movement, which erupted between the 1890s and World War I, embodied both meanings. Its most important grouping was called the Wandervogel—“migrating bird”. It consisted of young people (mostly from the educated middle class) who wandered around the country, singing folk and marching songs to the accompaniment of guitars, camping out under the stars, feeling one with nature and each other. They considered themselves as refugees from decadent urban culture and rebels against stuffy bourgeois convention. Supposedly they were free spirits. There were discrepant strands within the movement—some German nationalist, some anti-Semitic, some politically liberal, some homoerotic (others welcomed girls). These discrepancies were very obvious in an event in 1913 defined as historic, the Hohe Meissner Treffen, a gathering of thousands of “free German youth” over several days on a mountain top. After World War I the movement lost whatever cohesion it had. Different political parties created their own youth groups. The Nazis actually called their party a Bewegung. When it came into power in 1933 all German youth groups were absorbed into the Hitler Youth.

Almost by definition, every movement has a totalitarian potential. This potential can be contained if an individual maintains a measure of skeptical distance even if, for whatever reason, he joins a movement. Whether one considers a movement good or bad, worth joining or worth fighting, will obviously depend on how one evaluates its purpose.  In terms of modern history, I think one should consider the Nazi movement very bad, the civil rights movement very good, the various strands of the 1960s movement a mixed bag (racial and gender rights good—victimology, identity politics and anti-capitalism bad—musical preferences a matter of morally indifferent taste). Looking at the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements today, I find it difficult to see much good in either one. The health of American democracy will be improved if both movements are marginalized on the two sides of the aisle.

show comments
  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Typically by this time of the day there are a number of comments to Dr. Berger’s column, many of them in some form of disagreement for nearly incoherent reasons that have little to do with the topic at hand. The lack of early comments seems to prove Berger’s “fundamentalist – relativist” thesis: when you are in the middle it evokes neither opposition or agreement.

    In 1970, Dr. Berger and Rev. Richard Neuhaus published a little book titled Movement and Revolution: On American Radicalism. One of the chapter headings in that book has stuck with me: “between system and horde.”

    I have attended Tea Party meetings in my hometown out of sociological interest as well as support for their initial focus on the perils of the Federal debt. I have even written an article – “Why California Doesn’t Drink Tea” trying to correct the stereotype propagated in my local newspaper of the Tea Party as “wingnuts.” In my observation, they are economic rationalists who want to protect their savings, retirement benefits, health care and property from predation by government.

    In California, the origins of the Tea Party can be found in the “Gold Standard” movement in the 1890’s and their leader was a Jewish banker, not Tom Paine! But I don’t think the Tea Party members understand their origins are not in the American Revolution but in the financial crisis of the late 1800’s.

    That said, I don’t care for the leadership of the Tea Party and its “pyramid scheme,” multi-level marketing, a la Amway, methods of recruitment. Ironically, the local Tea Party seems to have more in common with Bernie Madoff’s methods than with Alexix de Tocqueville’s.

    The origins of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement can conversely be found in the “Free Silver Movement,” which sought to devalue the dollar with cheap gold just as sub-prime loans in essence did the same thing.

    The Democratic Party so one-sidedly controls everything in California (even the newspapers are totally under their control), that the only way to offer balance is to support the Tea Party. But the Tea Party in California has accomplished nothing thus far in California. It hasn’t been able to elect one public official or push a ballot initiative before the public that would attract enough Democratic centrists to alter the perilous budgetary course the state finds itself in.

    Following sociologist Max Weber’s observations about the “routinization of charisma,” the Tea Party has been pretty much absorbed into the mainstream of the Republican Party rather than offering an alternative. In my hometown the Republican Club and Republican Women’s Club have been “re-occupied” by the Tea Party.

    The local “Occupy” movement has resigned itself to rather sedate meetings of 30 or so followers in a local park with older male supporters with obligatory ponytails and the younger set riding bicycles as a badge of not driving some polluting vehicle produced by “Wall Street.” The “Occupy” movement is going nowhere. At least in Middle America, the Tea Party elected its candidates to Congress. I see no such outcome for the Occupy movement at this time.

    With the passage of the Gold Standard Act in 1900, the “Free Silver Movement” died out because:

    1. It failed to persuade a sufficient number of voters at the national level. Some of its members eventually followed Eugene Debs into the Socialist Party. I suspect a similar outcome for the “Occupy” movement.

    2. Worldwide gold discoveries increased the money supply without diluting the dollar by inflation. Perhaps the re-discovery of “fracking” methods of oil and gas extraction will do the same.

    3. The Depression of the 1890’s ended and prosperity returned. Capitalism, not socialism, remained the only pathway to that prosperity.

    I suspect a similar fate for both the Tea Party and the “Occupy” movements. Staying “between the System and the Horde” remains good advice for those joining social movements.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    I might add that for anyone wanting to find a “centrist” explanation of the national financial meltdown I would recommend reading political scientist Jeffrey Friedman’s “Engineering the Financial Crisis” (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2011). Neither conservatives nor liberals will be satisfied with his convincing findings.

    Friedman is a liberal who has a penchant for tracing issues to their root. The financial crisis started in Europe with the crisis of financing its welfare state due to lack of enough babies and family formations to sustain it. Thus, Europe flooded the U.S. with trillions of dollars looking for double digit returns to save its welfare state.

    French socialists, not conservative deregulators, paved the way for this Tsunami of money by the Basil II Accords that allowed more foreign investment. The U.S. Congress adopted the Basil II Accords which set quotas on commercial banks for how much of their portfolios had to be in mortgage backed bonds. The banks thus over-invested in mortgages, especially risky mortgages.

    Government pension funds were also facing a crisis in the U.S. when the flood of Euros arrived in the U.S. These pension funds also needed double digit returns to bail themselves out of future shortfalls. They invested in risky sub prime mortgages in the form of securitized mortgage bonds and pumped money into mortgage markets. Hence, the Housing Bubble.

    The Basil II Accords replaced the rating standards of Standard and Poors, Moody’s, and other rating agencies. But you won’t find that out if you believe the Tea Partiers that the Federal Reserve solely created the crisis or from the Occupiers who believe that overcompensation and greed of Wall Street speculators caused it.

    Friedman, and his colleague economist Wladimir Kraus, interestingly relate how sociologist-historian Max Weber’s eclectic approach of multi-determinism (“elective affinity”), is the best explanation for what happened with the U.S. financial crisis. Instead of “irrational exuberance” creating the crisis, Friedman and Kraus found excessive “instrumental rationalism” to be the root cause – something Weber warned about.

    Friedman and Kraus humbly point out that we don’t and can’t know everything about how the crisis evolved. But that it can be explained best as an accident – something that neither the Tea Party nor the Occupy Movement would find fitting to their explanations of the crisis.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    VANCOUVER, November 2, 2011 ( – On Sunday morning a break-away faction of the Occupy Vancouver movement tried to occupy the city’s Holy Rosary Cathedral during morning Mass.
    Several dozen protesters, calling themselves ‘Occupy the Vatican’, were halted when Archbishop Michael Miller requested a police presence, and were stopped again later in the day by police and members of the Knights of Columbus.
    The incident highlights a trend by some in the anti-corporate protest movement to use it as a launching pad for attacks on Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular.


  • Adam Becker

    I was just teaching some of Berger’s work yesterday and so it was a pleasure to come across this. I think I would question his characterization of the OWS as simply repeating trite anti-capitalist slogans and being stuck in a a kind of ’60s mentality. The “movement” is diverse and I don’t think one can understand it without engaging with the phenomenon of the General Assembly, which is a practice of horizontal participatory democracy. This is what is in some ways most important to many in the core group. The “people’s mic” is a fascinating democratic ritual in which one participates in and performs all of the words of each speaker in the assembly. Sure, you can find trite anti-capitalist statements, but the development of OWS at Zuccotti, the way that out of a group of activists, a number of institutions for everything from local sanitation to thinking about policy efforts, has been fascinating to observe, and the mix of ideas and just simply the practice of collective democratic conversation I find compellingly innovative, especially when the use of various forms of new media is considered. At a time when few young people know much about civics and most people do not have the opportunity to think about the common good or what the value of government is, OWS creates conversations in civics and the common good that our dismal educational system and horrifyingly superficial market culture have prevented and allowed to atrophy. Has Prof. Berger visited New York and engaged with OWS or are his opinions of it based upon news sources, such as the periodicals he cites as representative of the mainstream and middle of the road?

    I suspect his anxiety about hordes and movements – I know biographical arguments can be reductive and unfair – could reflect his own experience and background in Vienna, as he does bring up here the Nazis (I have read similar analogies about Kissinger’s anxieties to the crowds in the ’60s, and this also reminds me of Adorno’s fear of protesters’ crowds in the ’60s). Of course, I am aware of the danger of crowds, but instead of LeBon I prefer to think of Durkheim when considering the power of being in the collective, and I wonder how someone who thinks himself a democrat in any way can immediately bring up Nazis – talk about tired and hackneyed comparisons – whenever people come together for ethical reasons outside of formal, fully stable, and easily recognizable institutions. The social is not just what is sociologically transparent. I respectfully encourage Prof. Berger to consider the practices in democratic deliberation, the conversations about the common good, and the ethical demands of OWS as representing more than just the gropings of a crazed horde.

  • Anthony

    “At a time when few young people know much about civics and most people do not have opportunity to think about the common good or what the value of government is, OWS creates conversations in civics and the common good that our dismal educational system and horrifyingly superficial market culture have prevented and allowed to atrophy” is very trenchant insight and speaks to the stasis of the status quo (by the law of inertia the center is bound up in golden links with the good, the beautiful and the true…all else is error.).

  • Kenny

    The Tea Party is a healthy (and much needed) reaction to the reckeless squandering of taxpayer money by the Bush administration and then much more so by Obama. It is a cry for fiscal sanity.

    The OWS crowd is a cry, too, but a far different one. The OWS people want more government handouts, this time to themselves in the form of free education and readily available government jobs for them to fill.

    History is on the side of the Tea Party. Just look at Europe if you doubt it. As for OWS, they’re are about 10 years too late with their demands. They all better just go home and have mommy change their diapers.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Reply to Adam Becker

    Even in the Tea Party meetings I have attended composed of mostly people who are retirees or about-to-be retirees, there is a crowd psychology. At the meetings I attended there was a leader who led the group is a collective “Huzzah, huzzah, huzzah” yell at the end of each meeting. Although the Tea Party are economic rationalists wanting to protect their savings and property their movement still has an inescapable element of emotion as al social movements must. T

    he street rallies of the Occupy Movement reflect a crowd psychology. And for all your contention that those in the Occupy Movement are holding educational discussions about the financial crisis, I have always found that you cannot talk or dialogue with a crowd.

    You might as well show up at a high school or college basketball game in a tightly packed gym and root for the visiting team and see how long it takes before you get shouted down.

    Sorry, I don’t find that the Occupy Movement is an extension of Plato;s dialogues as much as it is Gustave Le Bon’s Crowds.

    Sure, there are some small cell groups of the Occupy Movement holding meetings in public parks but this is not the organized face of the movement presented to the mass media that tries to reflect that they are a “cognitive majority” (Peter Berger’s term) with their “We are the 99 percent” slogan. .

  • Adam Garfinkle

    A long post, Peter, but worth it for just one sentence: “A movement is the preservation of a crowd experience over time.” That sounds about exactly right. Into my quote file it has gone.

  • Tom Kinney

    The Tea Party looked like enraged Midwestern funeral directors, huh?

    That says a lot about this writer but not much that’s pertinent about anything else.

    Nobody ever accused me of looking like a funeral director, neither an enraged one nor one with smiley face stitched on.

    If there’s a major, noteworthy difference between the TP and OWS, it’s that the former is a serious movement that coalesced into something that made a tangible and almost immediate impact–which Berger clearly doesn’t like probably because it was largely successful in pursuing conservative goals–while the other isn’t particularly serious and probably won’t last.

    Personally, I wish that the TP and the conservative media had been a little gentler in tone toward OWS, as there are some important similarities, but liberals like Berger will apparently never understand the steady stream of anger that comes from conservatives when it comes to the fixed game played by the leftstream media.

    A recent study indicated that the ratio of positive MSM news about OWS in the first week to that of the TP was 50 to one. Positive about a bunch of ill-informed ADD children prone to mischief when not engaging in violence vs. negative about mature adults who understand and study the issues and behave themselves.

    Whose supposed to take them, and by extension Berger, seriously, when that’s their game?

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Mr. Kinney:

    The history of what social movements have produced, with some exceptions that Dr. Berger points out, is mostly the opposite of what they intended. I believe this is good reason to be skeptical of movements, either Right or Left.

    It is important to follow such movements from an anthropological perspective. The Scopes Trial and the Congressional vetting of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas take on symbolical significance beyond the rituals and their ideology. Typically, they are mass media dramas that signify social change.

    Dr. Berger once wrote an article “The Bluing of America” about the shift in the class structure of the U.S. in the 1960’s and 1970’s where there was a “circulation of the elites” (Vilfredo Pareto’s term) where the affluent children of the mostly liberal Bourgeoisie dropped out of Capitalist pursuits or chose Green or therapeutic careers leaving social space for blue collar upward social mobility.

    A tentative hypothesis on my part is that we are seeing a reversal of the class system as the welfare state is imperiled by what appears to be a decline in wealth; although I would defer to Dr. Berger’s sociological judgment on this issue. The children of liberal Bourgeoisie families saddled with debt for dead end careers that may be imperiled by the fiscal policies of the Tea Party may be what much of the Occupy Movement spectacle is mostly about. Not mentioned is that this may mean a cram down of those in the working class from upward mobility into white collar semi-professions and professions.

    That young people chose careers as environmental planners or green energy consultants, only to find that they are make work occupations that can no longer be afforded by a nation that needs to fund basic health care and the welfare safety net instead of pursuing a job as a (greedy) middle manager for Walmart reflects this abrupt shift. We might call it the “De-Greening of the Liberal Bourgeoisie.”

    Even if utopia arrives and all student loans are forgiven this may not change the reality that the children of the liberal Bourgeoisie are going to have to abruptly shift into careers and jobs in the Capitalist system instead of the Government or non-profit sector or re-start their occupation with a small business except they don’t have the entrepreneurial cultural capital to do so. The Tea Party, despite their evangelical (with a small “e”) methods, has that sort of cultural capital. Such cultural capital is typically not found in academia and thus there is a revolt against the Tea Party by the academic cognoscenti of the Occupy Movement as well.

  • Tim Chambers

    You guys are all so defensive and protective of your small plot of turf that you can’t see Occupy Wall Street for what it really is. Berger is wrong about it, because he’s looking at it through the wrong lens.

    The OWS people are there because the country has been on the wrong track since the Kennedy Administration. Kennedy cut taxes in the hope of spurring economic growth and it didn’t work. Carter started deregulating in the hope of spurring economic growth and it didn’t work. Reagan made a religion out of both. In addition, he started breaking the unions and exporting manufacturing jobs and what we got were financial bubbles and productivity increases that benefitted capital but not the average worker.

  • JBHay

    First, I must say I’m glad I stumbled upon this site. Reasoned discourse and responses, I must be dreaming. Thank you all.

    Although I’m a conservative I find the Tea Party’s approach disconcerting. They’re trying to strong-arm the political process. Their votes count like anyone else’s. No more or less.

    The Occupy folks have less of my sympathy. To me, they’re a rabble. I’m not rich, but I certainly don’t identify their 99%.

  • Christopher Chantrill

    If politics is civil war by other means then the job of politics is to tame “movements” and arrest their “lethal progression from crowd to mob to lynch mob.” Or at least stop the lynch mob from becoming a proto-governmental guerrilla army.

    In this sense the co-opting of the Tea Party into the Republican Party is a good thing. But what about OWS? It is clearly progressing quickly towards its logical culmination as a lynch mob. Maybe it is time for the adults in the Democratic Party to take charge.

  • Ellen Lopez

    This article is extremely interesting and extremely disappointing. There is so much factual, historical information and delineation of cultural development of crowd and youth psychology but the strength and persuasion of the analysis is wholly decimated by the two quite gratuitous denigrations of the Tea Party movement, most pronounced in the last sentences. Hadn’t you noticed what many critics of the Tea party constitutional conservatives have said – how more aged these folks are??? How is this a part of the youth movement that evolved into the leftist 60s? No, there is a great and different rebound in this Tea Party, constitutional and grassroots movement that does not partake of the disgusting, destructive elements described in what otherwise was an very interesting articulation of the leftist mania we see on the streets today in OWS all over the world.

  • Mike

    To Tim Chambers:

    Sir, politicians have never had the “average” (I hate labels) worker’s best interest at heart, since 1789 (government begain operating).

    To Ellen Lopez:

    Ma’am, ultra-conservative, right-winged, white oldster racists. God, how I hate labels. Not even close to their self-proclaiming to fame—“constitutional conservatives”. Why do rightees always have to label everyone and everything — “leftist 60s, leftist mania”

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2015 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service