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Why #OccupyWallStreet Scares the Right

October 20, 2011, 12:48 pm | Posted by Nick Sementelli

Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate in Nevada featured another installment of the highly anticipated audience-cheers-something-inappropriate series.

This week, the consensus seems to be that the winner is applause for Herman Cain responding to a question about #OccupyWallStreet by reiterating his “unemployed people have only themselves to blame” commentary:

COOPER: “Herman Cain, I’ve got to ask you — two weeks ago, you said, `Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job, and you’re not rich, blame yourself.’ That was two weeks ago. The movement has grown. Do you still say that?” [APPLAUSE]

CAIN: Yes I do still say that. [LOUDER APPLAUSE AND CHEERS]

Greg Sargent, Steve Benen, and Jonathan Bernstein have already ably discussed this moment in depth. My sense here is that the audience isn’t cheering in support of Cain’s statement as much as they’re reacting against the one it implicitly rebuts. At first glance, the observation that many people are unemployed by no fault of their own seems like an uncontroversial point, a self-evident reality during a serious economic downturn. The problem is that it threatens a core conservative narrative–the belief that people get what they deserve.

Crystallized by an unwavering faith in the free market, this belief in an inherently just economy provides the moral framework for almost every conservative economic policy. In this world, material success is exclusively the result of hard work and ingenuity while poverty and unemployment are signs of individual moral deficits. It appears most prominently in the increasingly popular “makers vs. takers” and “job creators vs. moochers” language and explains the initially confusing phenomena of working- and middle-class conservatives passionately defending policies that only benefit the wealthiest few.

In order for this worldview to remain intact, #occupywallstreet must be the lashing out of envious losers rather than a genuine reflection of economic injustice. To admit that the market has left behind wide swaths of Americans who played by the rules and don’t deserve this suffering is to knock down the crucial link in this entire house of cards.

I think what we’re seeing now is the panicked anxiety of a movement desperate to preserve this fantasy in spite of the contradictory evidence piling up around them. The popular embrace of economic denialism, adoption of apocryphal history about the financial crisis, and even celebration their own economic suffering all strike me as elaborate intellectual defense mechanisms.

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