You can’t turn on a TV or pick up a newspaper without seeing a mention of the Occupy Wall Street protests that are being held across the country.  Yet as often as the protests are mentioned, there is surprisingly little information about who these protesters are—and who they are not—and what exactly it is that they want.

The movement has been compared to the Arab Spring and particularly to the Tahrir Square Egyptian protests that brought down the regime of Hosni Mubarak.  It’s also been called a “Tea Party for the Left,” in a nod to the original Tea Party movement that has now become a powerful fixture in the Republican Party.

It’s easy to see why.  Camped out in tents and demanding radical change, the Wall Street Occupiers look like the Tahrir Square protesters, at least on the surface.  And somewhat paradoxically, given that the Occupy Wall Street crowd hails mostly from the political left, they share many of the same complaints voiced by the Tea Party—disgust with the bailout culture, revulsion at the influence that Wall Street has on both political parties, indignation at taxpayer money being used (at least indirectly) to pay banker bonuses, etc.

But beyond these superficialities, Occupy Wall Street has little else in common with either Tahrir Square or the Tea Party.

Who Are They?

The bulk of Occupy Wall Street fit the typical demographic of political protestors—young, white, relatively affluent, idealistic and politically left-leaning—the basic demographic you would expect to see a Berkeley political rally.   But the movement also includes its share of socialists, communists, radical libertarians, anarchists, union members and even a small contingent of conservatives.   And more recently, organized labor unions have joined the fray.

New York Magazine did a survey of political views among the protesters and found that:

  • 37 percent believe that capitalism “can’t be saved; it’s inherently evil.” (46 percent took the softer view that, while not “evil,” it needed to be regulated)
  • 40 percent “Believed in President Obama” but “he let them down.”
  • 34 percent agree with Noam Chomsky that the U.S. government is “no better than Al Qaeda.”

(View New York Magazine story here)

What Do They Want?

This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer.  With no official leadership and no single organization in control, the broader demands range from removing the influence of money on politics to the abolition of capitalism itself.  Specific demands have included everything from raising taxes on the rich to strengthening organized labor to abolishing the Federal Reserve.

Should Investors Be Concerned?

In short, no.  Though the movement appears intimidating on TV, the protesters have had practically no effect on the day-to-day operations of Wall Street.  Unless you live in New York City and have had your daily commute disrupted, Occupy Wall Street is unlikely to affect your life or investments.

What Happens Now?

The protest will meet its end one of two ways:

  1. The public and media will lose interest, depriving the movement of the publicity it needs to sustain itself.  The protesters themselves—a demographic not known for having a long attention span—will get bored and go home.
  2. President Obama, a group of prominent congressional Democrats, or the Democratic Party as a whole will pay enough lip service to Occupy Wall Street to coopt it the same way that the Republican Party largely did the Tea Party.

Of these two scenarios, the first is far more likely.  It would be extraordinarily difficult for the Democrats to embrace the Occupy Wall Street movement—complete with its red Che Guevara flags—and still appeal to centrist voters.  If President Obama hopes to get reelected, he has to project himself as a moderate voice of reason in a world gone mad.  Embracing Occupy Wall Street will clearly not do that.

The Republicans know a little something about this.  Every Republican candidate for president is facing the difficult balancing act of placating the Tea Party while still appealing to moderate voters.  But while the Tea Party may be a little too extreme for many Americans, its patriotic, clean-cut image is generally going to be more palatable than a mob of grungy student protestors.

My prediction?  At the first cold snap of the New York winter, the Occupy Wall Street movement packs up and goes home.

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