Occupy Wall Street has already won, perhaps not the victory most of its participants want, but a momentous victory nonetheless. It has already altered our political debate, changed the agenda, shifted the discussion in newspapers, on cable TV, and even around the water cooler. And that is wonderful.
Suddenly, the issues of equity, fairness, justice, income distribution, and accountability for the economic cataclysm–issues all but ignored for a generation—are front and center. We have moved beyond the one-dimensional conversation about how much and where to cut the deficit. Questions more central to the social fabric of our nation have returned to the heart of the political debate. By forcing this new discussion, OWS has made most of the other participants in our politics—who either didn’t want to have this conversation or weren’t able to make it happen—look pretty small.
Surely, you might say, other factors have contributed: A convergence of horrifying economic data has crystallized the public’s underlying anxiety. Data show that median family income declined by 6.7 percent over the past two years, the unemployment rate is stuck at 9.1 percent in the October report (16.5 percent if you look at the more meaningful U6 number), and 46.2 million Americans are living in poverty—the most in more than 50 years. Certainly, those data help make Occupy Wall Street’s case.
But until these protests, no political figure or movement had made Americans pay attention to these facts in a meaningful way. Indeed, over the long hot summer, as poverty rose and unemployment stagnated, the entire discussion was about cutting our deficit.
And then OWS showed up. They brought something that had been in short supply: passion—the necessary ingredient that powers citizen activism. The tempered, carefully modulated, and finely nuanced statements of Beltway politicians and policy wonks do not alter the debate.
Of course, the visceral emotions that accompany citizen activism generate not only an energy that can change politics but an incoherence that is easily mocked. OWS is not a Brookings Institution report with five carefully researched policy points and an appendix of data. It is a leaderless movement, and it can often be painfully simplistic in its economic critique, lacking in subtlety in its political strategies, and marred by fringe elements whose presence distracts and demeans. Yet, the point of OWS is not to be subtle, parsed, or nuanced. Its role is to drag politics to a different place, to provide the exuberance and energy upon which reform can take place.
The major social movements that have transformed our country since its founding all began as passionate grassroots activism that then radiated out. Only later do traditional politicians get involved. The history of the civil rights movement, women’s rights movement, labor movement, peace movement, environmental movement, gay rights movement, and, yes, even the Tea Party, follow this model. In every instance, visceral emotions about justice, right, and wrong ignited a movement. Precise demands and strategies followed later. So the critique of OWS as unformed and sometimes shallow may be correct, but it is also irrelevant.
Just as importantly, most of those who are so critical of OWS have failed to recognize inflection points in our politics. They fail to recognize that the public is responding to OWS because it is desperate for somebody to speak with the passion, and even anger, that has filled the public since the inequities and failures of our economy have become so apparent.
Will the influence of OWS continue? Will it continue to capture the imagination of the public? Will it morph into a more concrete movement with sufficiently precise objectives that it can craft a strategy with real goals and strategies for attaining them? These are impossible questions to answer right now.
Could it launch a citizen petition demanding that a Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, or Paul Volcker be brought into government as a counterweight to or replacement for the establishment voice of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner? Maybe. Could OWS demand meetings with top—government officials? Could it demand answers to tough questions—from the specific (explain the government’s conflicting statements about the AIG-Goldman bailout) to the more theoretical (why “moral hazard” is a reason to limit government aid only cited when the beneficiaries would be everyday citizens)?
There is much ground to cover before real reform, but as a voice challenging a self-satisfied, well-protected status quo, OWS is already powerful and successful.
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