Like many in my generation, my first taste of political involvement was in the movement to end the war in Vietnam and achieve civil rights. As a teenager at James Madison High School in Brooklyn I helped organize demonstrations and spent many afternoons leafleting subway stations and staffing literature tables on busy street corners. I view demonstrations as a normal part of the political process. Our right to assembly is a critical one and peaceful demonstrations have an important role in political communication. However, it is not simply nostalgia that makes me support the folks downtown as they Occupy Wall Street. My hope is that they are able to build on the profound success of their movement to date, and find a way to maintain a vital voice in our national political life.
Occupy Wall Street’s key accomplishment has been to get the issue of economic opportunity and the extreme concentration of wealth on the political agenda. They are providing a counterweight to the Tea Party’s notion that government and regulation have no role in the America’s economic life. While Presidential candidate Governor Rick Perry thinks the way to create jobs is to remove regulatory “shackles” on industry like the Clean Air Act, the protestors occupying Zuccotti Park are articulating a different, more sustainable approach to economic development.
This alternative to the Tea Party is gaining political traction. In a Time Magazine poll on October 9th and 10th, 54% of those surveyed had a favorable impression of the protests, while 23% had a negative impression. In contrast, 27% of the public had a favorable impression of the Tea Party while 33% viewed the Tea Party negatively. While I believe that attitudes toward the Tea Party have become relatively stable, opinions about the Occupy Wall Street movement are still being formed.
I agree with an analysis recently offered by CBS’ Brian Montopoli, who reports that there is a wide agreement, even among the wealthy, that the concentration of wealth in America has become too extreme. According to Montopoli, this consensus:
“…goes a long way toward explaining the Occupy movement’s potential staying power and cultural resonance. While most Americans wouldn’t camp out in the freewheeling quasi-society that has sprung up in Lower Manhattan, the vast majority seem to share the protesters’ sense that the economic deck is stacked. They’ve seen the government bail out the banks that helped create the economic crisis, seen corporate profits hit all-time high after all-time high, seen CEO pay balloon to 350 times that of the average worker. They’ve seen average hourly earnings (adjusted for inflation) stagnate for half a century while CEO pay increased 300 percent since 1990. They’ve seen social mobility decline and friends and neighbors join the ranks of the long-term unemployed while the wealthiest Americans have had their tax burden reduced and have increased their share of the nation’s wealth.”
While some observers believe that the movement lacks focus, the addition of related issues is a typical process in American mass movements as coalitions are built and the political base expands. There is no real danger posed by too many messages as long as the central message remains clear and undiluted.
And I would not underestimate the impact of the central message being projected to the public by Occupy Wall Street. Since election of Ronald Reagan as President thirty years ago, the political dialogue has been dominated by the message that government is the cause of our problems. To the conservative movement, government is the problem and an unregulated free market is the solution. The American public is starting to come to a different set of conclusions. They understand that deregulation of the finance industry helped destroy the value of their homes and savings. The people occupying Wall Street may not trust government any more than they trust corporations, but they understand that corporations cannot be allowed to operate without rules.
The millions of small donations to the 2008 Obama campaign, the emergence of the Tea Party and the growing power of Occupy Wall Street are all part of the same populist uprising that has been growing throughout the 21st century. The nation’s elected leaders see these waves of public opinion breaking against the shore and are struggling to figure out the best way to ride them.
The massive power of moneyed interests in American politics has been the result of the court mandated collapse of campaign finance regulation and the growing expense of running for elective office. Consultants, commercials and vote harvesters do not come cheap. However, it is possible that the low-cost techniques of social networks and other forms of electronic communication may start to reduce the impact of money in American politics. We are starting to see the impact of a motivated citizenry that has learned how to communicate directly to each other outside of broadcast and cable media.
Ultimately, the Occupy Wall Street agenda must make its way to the ballot box to achieve institutional power. The Tea Party managed to elect some of its supporters to Congress in 2010 – and their impact has been substantial. Will the group occupying Zuccotti Park find a way to come in from the cold and move their battle to indoor arenas? Some of the “Occupiers” will reject electoral politics and seek to maintain the “purity of protest.” Some will splinter off of the main group and pursue different tactics. No one at this point can predict the direction this movement will take.
Currently Occupy Wall Street has managed to maintain a positive image. The effort to paint the protestors with negatives seems limited to the extreme right wing. The greatest challenge to that positive image will be faced when the protestors decide to leave the park and bring their movement to the next step in its progression to possible power and influence. While no one can tell where this new political current is heading, it is clear that a new and long overdue force in American politics is in the process of being born.