The problem and potential of the Occupy movements
As a proud progressive, I would like to celebrate the mass protests that began as Occupy Wall Street and have since spread to dozens of other cities where demonstrations haven taken on the monikers of Occupy this and Occupy that. While I applaud the attention that has been given to the ridiculously skewed levels of personal wealth in this country and am happy to see the left-wing mobilize in a way that haven’t in years, if not decades, I am deeply skeptical that these protests will help, rather than hurt, the electoral chances of progressive politicians in 2012.
While I tend to eschew heavy-handed analogies, it is worth thinking about how left-wing protests in the late sixties helped turn off mainstream America to the Democratic Party and ushered in a new era of conservative politics. As David Brooks points out in his Op-ed in today’s New York Times, while sixties and early seventies protestors may have gotten the camera time, the Silent Majority of voters went on to reelect Richard Nixon twice (including a majority of newly enfranchised youth voters in 1972) and Republican administrations every election for the next 24 years. Only Watergate allowed for the brief Democratic tenure of Jimmy Carter, who ran as a conservative Democrat.
While the American public has so far shown support for the demonstrations, that support will likely dwindle as the weeks role on. Just as the Tea Party once attracted a broad support when it served as a nebulous catharsis for a public that was strongly, but vaguely, angered at the-powers-that-be in Washington, the Occupy movement provides a similar role for venting angry at the powers-that-be in higher echelons of corporate America. Once the Tea Party types revealed what they really were, the most socially conservative elements of the base of the Republican party, the honeymoon quickly ended and the words “Tea Party” have become an active turnoff to many of the moderate swings voters who will decide the 2012 election.
The Occupy movement will likely witness a similar devolution. As the weather grows colder and the crowds begin to shrink, the diehards that remain will represent anything but an appealing cross-section of America. A movement crying out for the need to reform the political and economic system in such a way as to spread the wealth in a more equitable way may well morph into a shrill core of Che Guevara idolizing socialists shouting for an end to the capitalist system. For Republicans politicians trying to peg the term “socialist” to the President and other progressive politicians, the Occupy movements could end up being a true blessing in disguise.
In order to avoid this turn of events, here’s some advice for Joe Occupier:
1. Think baby-steps, because you’re not going to bring the system down — and, unless your self-image as a would-be revolutionary is more powerful than your honest desire for change, remember that radical goals and statements will only lead to moderate backlash and empower the conservative forces in this country. There are, however, important measures you can throw your voice behind that will help make this a better country. First, advocate taking big money out of politics, even if it requires introducing a Constitutional amendment that balances the importance of free speech with the importance of mitigating the influence of the wealthy classes. Second, keep fighting for a more progressive tax code that doesn’t result in Warren Buffett paying lower tax rates than his secretary. Three, fight for more oversight of the financial sector, the lack of which played a key role in the current economic problems. These are all achievable and measured steps that much of the nation can get behind.
2. While it might feel good to say, knock it off with the “both parties are the same” line. They aren’t, and that type of thinking got us eight years of George W. Bush when several percent of the population who would normally have supported Al Gore gave their votes away to Ralph Nader in 2000. Despite past mistakes, the President and Democrat party are fighting for the same goals I mentioned in my last point, even if they have been frequently stymied by Republican filibusters and a Republican House. If Republicans win the next election, the result won’t be stalemate, but rather policies that promote more inequality and less investment in the future. If Occupy Wall Street doesn’t translate into occupying the ballot box next year, it will have all been a bunch of sound and fury which ultimately signified nothing.
3. Blame the system, not the rich people. As I wrote in an earlier blog, a key difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats understand how incentives influence rational behavior. Those who profit on Wall Street are behaving as all of us would — they are trying to make a buck within the system as it exists. The financial crisis occurred, in large part, because banks were able to shed responsibility for bad loans by selling derivatives that “spread the risk,” incentivizing them to maximize profits while passing on the consequences of failure to the system as a whole. And the government let the flawed system go on, just as the government lets business executives collect paychecks thousands of times bigger than their workers, and just as government officials allow the same financiers to turn around and funnel their money back into Washington to fight changes to the status quo.
However, criticizing rich financiers who are generally obeying the law will get you nowhere. They will just laugh all the way back to their penthouses and mansions. The problem lies in the laws themselves, and therein lays the need for reform. As Chris Rock once said in one of his stand up routines when referring to his own extreme personal wealth, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”