The Occupy Wall Street message: “We are the 99%” has the benefit of simplicity but conveys a deep and complex message that is likely to find acceptance far beyond the mostly young people camping in urban centers around the world. The slogan is a challenge to rebalance a system of democratic capitalism that has lost its equilibrium and no longer seems to be delivering on its promises for the majority of participants. The social contract offering a middle class life for workers, a secure retirement, and a better life for the next generation now seems to be a broken promise except for those at the very top. But beyond this breakdown of the economic system, the breakdown of the political system presents an even greater challenge to what it means to live in, and believe in, a country based on democratic capitalism.
The Occupy movement has started a national conversation about inequality and, as noted by EJ Dionne, even Republicans are starting to address the phrase. House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor and House Budget Committee Chair, Paul Ryan raise the topic of income inequality as a legitimate concern before turning to accuse President Barak Obama of “class warfare.” We have said for a long time that when Republicans make this charge against Democrats the proper translation of “class warfare” is “Ouch! That hurts us.” For decades, Republicans respond quickly to anything uttered by a Democrat that remotely sounds like an appeal to class consciousness because they know just how threatening it could be to support for Republicans. It is not clear whether Republicans should be blaming President Obama, the Occupy movement or themselves, but despite their best efforts to avoid it, they seem to be on the wrong side of a class struggle in an election year.
Herman Cain’s response to the protesters was: “Don’t be jealous, don’t be envious. I don’t have much patience for someone who does not want to achieve their American dream the old-fashioned way.” But this is about much more than envy of the haves by the have-nots. The power of the movement, embodied in the four word slogan, is that it is an indictment of our economic system, our political system and especially the relationship between the two.
This is not just a story of economic disappointment. What has changed is the relationship between the economic and political spheres. The continual contradiction that is democratic capitalism, the tension between the one-dollar-one-vote capitalism, and the one-person-one-vote democracy, can be both the heart of its strength or the center of its weakness. When these forces are working in balance, as they did during the decades of the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, the majority uses its democratic power to elect leaders who will restrain the natural tendency of capitalism toward concentrations of wealth and power. The “1%” may have both outsized wealth and political clout but the 99% have the votes. And the slogan challenges everyone who is not among the very rich, a category that includes the poor, the middle class, and even most of the upper-middle class, to vote as if votes still matter in our democracy.
Occupy Finds Support in Public Opinion
Early evidence suggests Occupy could be as influential in late 2011 into 2012 as the Tea Party was in 2010 and first seven months of 2011. (And for the record, we see little reason to expect of a return of momentum to the Tea Party any time in the future). According to the CBS News / New York Times poll taken just one month after the start of the first encampment in New York, 43% of Americans say they agree with the movement (27% disagree and 30% do not know). Further, just 26% of Americans say the distribution of money and wealth in this country is fair, while more than twice as many (66%) Americans say the distribution of money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed among more people.
Another poll for the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found a similar level of support (39%) but higher levels of opposition (35%) for Occupy Wall Street, but the same poll found lower support (32%) and higher opposition (44%) for the Tea Party movement. In both polls, support for Occupy is stronger among independent voters. There is a message being sent by Occupy Wall Street about concentrations of wealth and its influence on political power that has the potential to find great resonance among voters in the middle of the political spectrum.
Polls of Occupy supporters are inherently suspect due to the difficulty of deciding who to interview. When the press and curious gawkers often outnumber protestors camping in tents, and volunteers preparing meals or staffing the medical tent may be going to their homes to eat and sleep; when the people eating the meals or getting medical treatment may have been living on the same streets and parks months before the protestors arrived, deciding who to interview may have a great deal of influence on the poll’s results. Our own efforts to engage people at Occupy rallies in political conversation find a great deal of diversity in views.
Consensus is Frustratingly Hard to Reach
Walking around the tent cities in McPherson Square in Washington DC, and Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London and listening to people reveals that they are not of one mind with reports and blogs coming from Zuccotti Square in New York City, but rather, they are of the same many minds. Yes, there are some anarchists among them, and some communists, and some socialists, but there are also libertarians, liberals, non-partisans and anti-partisans and many who are decidedly anti-political. They may not like conservative Republican politics one bit, but frustration with Democrats runs high as well for what they see as a failure to offer an alternative uncorrupted by Wall Street money. But dislike of politics and politicians is certainly not outside the mainstream of American public opinion.
In addition to many commentators asserting that this is a radical left movement bent on the destruction of American Capitalism as we know it, others seem to be blaming the Occupy movement for a lack of a coherent message or plan. The reason they are frustrated is because there is no individual Occupy protestor that has any more claim than any other to speak for this movement. Each has their own statement to make that others can agree with or not as they choose.
“This is What Democracy Looks Like”
The Occupiers have selected a difficult decision making process, consensus, where majority does not rule and decisions are only made when everyone present at “general assembly” meetings agrees on a proposal. This system is showing some serious signs of stress lately, but it has the advantage of causing Occupiers to listen to other Occupiers with very different views. People with quite radical views and people with far more mainstream views engage in conversation looking for common ground.
Consensus decision making is in many ways quite conservative. Much like the United States Senate, any member can hold back consensus, and extreme views often need to be softened. Still there is a lot that the protestors can agree on, and this core message is not so far from mainstream thinking in the suburbs and hollowed out exurbs of middle-America.
A Return to a Simple, Better Time
Ultimately the message of Occupy does not have to be seen as radical at all. It really is a call for a return to policies that were put into place as a reaction to the concentrations of wealth and power in the Robber Barron era and subsequent collapse of the economic system in the Great Depression, and worked well in the past. Strong anti-trust laws restrain monopoly power, strong labor unions, and government social programs help workers share in corporate success and avoid poverty in old age, strong regulations protect worker safety, consumer safety, and maintain the trust in markets that is necessary for capitalism to function and flourish.
All together these elements and restrictions imposed on capitalism by the democratic system created the American middle class, the engine of a sustained period of unprecedented prosperity. Add in a few measures designed to address the public’s current needs for mortgage assistance, student loan forgiveness, and measures to prevent taxpayer bailouts of the financial system and get money out of politics — ultimately demanding a reversal of the Citizens United decision where the Supreme Court extended First Amendment free speech protections to corporate campaign cash. But neither alien nor new, the call of the movement is for a return to America when it worked and government was on the side of the people, not the powerful.