The Occupiers Can Win
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” –Gandhi
It feels like a lifetime since I’ve posted a political blog entry, but I just can’t resist adding my voice to the chants going out from Wall Street and all across America these days. About two months ago I moved to Japan and since then my focus on politics has taken a back-seat to the major life-changes I’ve been going through. It wasn’t long after I look my leave-of-absence from the political world that thousands of my fellow citizens found themselves diving in head-first and igniting a movement that has the potential to completely change the American political landscape for a generation. This post intends to serve the dual purposes of A) spreading some of my optimism about the potential of the Occupy Wall Street movement to bring about significant political change and B) keeping with the primary purpose of my political writing which has always been to provide like-minded people with arguments to potentially sway conservative-leaning yet open-minded citizens to our point of view.
First and foremost, you should tell your conservative friends that if they like the Tea Party, they should love the Occupiers. After all, this is a grassroots movement of citizens disillusioned with the broken system standing up and demanding change. I seem to recall the pundits on Fox News and other cable channels lauding the Tea Party for that very reason—regardless of their specific views, they were participating in the political process in the full spirit of the American tradition of Free Speech and the right to organize. You’d think that even if they disagree with the message of the Occupiers, they should at least acknowledge that their zeal for peaceful demonstration is as American as it gets, and intrinsically no more or less valuable than that of the Tea Party.
Of course, we know that there is in fact a world of difference between what lies at the core of the Tea Party and what drives the Occupiers. While it’s true that most of the average citizens who go to Tea Party rallies are well-intentioned people who honestly believe in the message they’re sending, their movement is “grassroots” in name only—it is in fact a collection of various political organizations funded by right-wing think-tanks like Americans for Prosperity which are themselves funded by the wealthiest Americans and corporations, the very people who are responsible for the economic conditions the Tea Partiers’ anger is a product of. Their anger is justified and their willingness to protest is admirable, but they’ve been misled and misdirected into serving the enemies of the very kinds of change they really need.
Conversely, the Occupiers are a true grassroots movement, not funded by any billionaires but started “from the ground up” in the most literal sense of the term. Just a few hundred citizens decided to direct their anger at the very people responsible for their financial hardship and they took to the streets and kept at it—not just organizing a single protest for a day and then going home having been completely ignored by the media, but sticking to it until people finally started paying attention and more powerful allies began to join their fight.
The right-wing propaganda machine wants us to dismiss them as a bunch of left-wing hippies who don’t understand how the world really works, and this has worked so far and will continue to work on the Fox News audience for a long time to come, but they should be reminded as often as possible that just as the Tea Party was not quite the neo-Klan rally gathering of racists and bigots that the “liberal” media sometimes portrayed them as, neither can the Occupiers be characterized with such a broad brush. Fox News has constantly reminded us that there are Independents and Democrats among the Tea Party crowd, and we should all be reminded that there are indeed some Tea Partiers among the Occupier crowd as well.
The movement to restore fairness to the American economic system should not be considered either right-wing or left-wing and we should resist as much as we can the efforts of the corporate media to drive a wedge between the Occupiers and conservative-leaning citizens who would share their sentiments if only they were given an objective look.
I won’t waste time going into the justifications of the Occupy Wall Street movement itself, as anyone interested in understanding their message could read any of a thousand other blog posts, check out this website, or simply watch the movie Inside Job. The central fact—and it is a fact—behind this movement is that Wall Street traders, aided by their bought-and-paid-for tools in Washington (on both sides of the aisle) who’ve been deregulating their industry since the 1990s in exchange for campaign donations, inflated a financial bubble that dealt a crippling blow to the middle class when it burst. Moreover, those responsible for this fiasco have continued to thrive thanks to a giant taxpayer bailout, even awarding themselves record bonuses as if to spit in the faces of all the people they’d screwed over once they were through screwing us.
I’ll say it again: if you like the Tea Party you should love the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Tea Party movement was so popular (among those who failed to follow the money) due to the perception that it was a struggle of the Little Guy against the Big Guy, a reaction to the financial crisis and the ensuing bailout that enraged everybody regardless of political affiliation. Yet somewhere along the way the anger was diverted from Wall Street and directed at the handful of people in Washington who were actually trying to fix the system. The Occupiers have brought the anger back to where it started and where it belongs, and if the success of the Tea Party is any indication it will soon be a force to be reckoned with.
Just look at what the billionaires and the corporate establishment have managed to accomplish by harnessing the momentum that the Tea Party provided them with. They were nearly able to derail health care reform entirely, and while a bill was ultimately passed it was so watered-down and establishment-friendly that its main element is actually a mandate to buy insurance from the same profit-driven companies that were the reason the American health-care system was in such need of reform in the first place. They’ve prevented anything whatsoever from getting done on climate change, deflated any pressure there might have been to restore the civil liberties demolished by the Bush administration, allowed state and local governments to slash funding for education and public services while handing out corporate tax-cuts, secured at least a two-year extension of the Bush tax-rates, and in the biggest irony of all made last years’ Wall Street Reform Act so ineffective as to ensure that if nothing else is done by the time the next bubble bursts, the entire financial-collapse and subsequent taxpayer-bailout is guaranteed to happen all over again.
Much has been made by the mainstream media about the lack of “concrete demands” from the Occupier movement. The lack of specific demands never stopped the Tea Party from having such a major influence in Washington. And if the Tea Party can be said to have made any demands at all, it was always to prevent something from getting done (e.g. “Kill the Bill!”). The spirit of the Occupier movement is to get those in power to actually do something to fix the broken system. The specifics of what that is can be debated by policymakers, but without that pressure from the ground there will never even be a debate.
One of the best suggestions is this one put forward by Alex Pareene at Salon to demand that Wall Street forgive the debts of the 99% who bailed them out. It’s got both moral and practical justifications: they’d be bankrupt if not for our help so why shouldn’t they save us from bankruptcy? Not only that, but imagine the stimulative effect on the economy if all of a sudden the middle class had all that capital freed up to spend on consumer goods rather than debt payments to banks. If the Occupiers take up this idea as a rallying cry, it might just become a real issue in the 2012 election.
The timing of this movement could hardly be more perfect, as right now the Obama White House is suffering from a complete lack of momentum and yet it still has time to change course. When he came to office Obama had a movement of energized citizens behind him but his failure to harness that energy and lead the country in a different direction caused it to fizzle out in a matter of months. If he wanted to ensure his re-election there’s a new movement full of energy just waiting to be harnessed, if he just had the political courage to stand up, take the mantle, and run with it.
Among the Occupiers’ demands, I believe the immediate firing of Tim Geithner, (referred to by insiders as “Wall Street’s man in Washington”) should be near the top of the list, along with the rest of Obama’s disastrous economic team to be replaced by people actually willing to fight the bankers and hand out indictments where appropriate. Obama has done so much to appease the Wall Street crowd and yet they still aren’t satisfied, so his best chance at redeeming his administration is to give up on their support entirely, take a cue from Franklin Roosevelt, and welcome their hatred. As the Occupy movement grows it should become increasingly clear to him that making an enemy of the most hated institution in the country is not, as the establishment-insiders in their beltway-bubble would have him believe, political suicide. He won’t need their campaign cash with such strong wind at his back.
At the very least, the Occupy movement can play the same role as the Tea Party movement in providing strong and vocal support for policies to bring about more economic fairness for the middle class, throwing its support behind any politician willing to fight for their popular and just cause and fighting tooth-and-nail against all those Wall Street puppets who stand against them.
Finally, as the number one argument that will get thrown back in your face by conservatives when you insist that the rich should pay their fair share is that “the top 1% pay 40% of all federal taxes and the bottom 51% pay no taxes at all”, I just want to offer you a couple of links that will allow you to quickly shoot down that talking-point. Here it explains that between 1987 and 2008, the top 1%’s share of the national income increased at five times the rate of their share of taxes. Here you’ll find that while the top 1% do pay 40% of all federal income taxes, when you factor in other kinds of taxes including payroll tax and sales tax their actual share is actually between 22 and 28%, right in line with the 25% of the national income they control. And here you’ll find that when you don’t just cherry pick the federal income tax, the bottom 51% do indeed pay a decent chunk of their income in taxes. You can cite these facts, or you could simply remind them that when a family making less than $30,000 a year pays 13% in taxes, they have to use everything left over to pay for food, heating, car insurance, and all the other bills, while when someone making millions of dollars a year pays 34% in taxes, they’ve still got millions left over.
The Occupy Wall Street movement deserves as much support as we can give it. It’s about time we’re seeing the pent-up rage of the middle class spilling out onto the streets, and if the history of class-struggles in the United States is any guide, there’s reason to believe that they might actually succeed.