Occupy wall street posed for me an exquisite dilemma: I could agree with my radical students at Manhattan’s famously subversive New School that Occupy was a revolution in the making, and thus forsake most everything I have observed about contemporary politics and have learned from my historical study of social movements. Or I could profess my sober realism and risk both seeming a downer to my idealistic students and dismissing the transformative potential of a movement whose trajectory, in its most intoxicating phases, was far from certain.

For all its sturm und drang, Occupy largely confirmed what we already knew: that millions of Americans still believe that Wall Street — not Big Government — is to blame for the country’s economic woes. Occupy, in short, restored a balance of ideological conviction, reanimating an evenhanded war of interpretation. Throughout the boisterous protests, an adage rang...

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