Laura Noonan, MPA
Since the inception of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in September, critics and commentators have questioned both the motives and tactics of the populist movement. Perhaps the most common objection is that OWS protestors have failed to focus on a single, unifying demand. To be sure, their concerns are broad, and even at times seemingly conflicting. Issues that have been voiced include protesting social and economic inequality, high unemployment, corporate greed and corruption, and the undue influence of corporations – especially financial services firms – on the political process.
The fact is, their demands are far from simple. While some are fairly tangible (e.g. more progressive tax policies), others (like reducing the influence of Wall Street and corporations on the political process) are much more complex, requiring the overall of deeply-embedded systems.
For that reason alone, it was ultimately beneficial for the OWS movement that protestors were recently forced out of Zuccotti Park in New York City and other locations across the country. While an aggressive tactic such as ”occupation” was perhaps necessary to draw initial attention to their cause, over time it was bound to became a war of attrition, one that would be nearly impossible for the protestors to win given the lack of clear solutions to the issues they are protesting.
Semi-permanent encampments also require intense dedication from protestors, tending to draw a higher proportion of the more extreme (less understood, more easily attacked) supporters, while potentially scaring more moderate compatriots away. I, for instance, care deeply about economic and social inequality, but chose for various reasons not to join the protests. To be ultimately successful, the movement of the 99% must gain more support from the 99% of Americans they claim to represent.
In addition, to make changes within our current political system, the movement would be wise to make the distinction that they are protesting against policies which serve to protect the rich at the expense of the rest of us, not the rich themselves. Warren Buffett, who has come out against regressive tax policies, should serve as an example that the wealthiest 1% of Americans are not always the enemy.
The OWS movement does seem to be moving towards more mainstream acceptance, and is now publicly supported by a coalition of more than 70 liberal organizations, including MoveOn.org, several large labor unions, and Planned Parenthood, as well as hundreds of prominent and influential individuals. This could help to provide additional resources, legitimize the movement, and ultimately force a prioritization of demands.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the Occupy Wall Street movement will be able to have the electoral impact needed to achieve many of their stated goals. The Tea Party, a similarly ambitious and unfocused movement, was able to successfully attract candidates to run on a platform representing the movement, and to shift mainstream Republicans’ campaigns in an effort to please Tea Party constituents.
While the long-term impact of the OWS movement is still unclear, it has in many ways already been successful, primarily by starting to reframe the public discourse on inequality.
The top 1% of the individuals in the American economy take home 25% of total income, and own 40% of the wealth. Research has shown that most Americans support a much more equal distribution of resources, but are also optimistically ignorant of the level of inequality that currently exists. But this may be changing as more and more attention is drawn to the issue. The term “income inequality” is appearing more and more frequently in the media, rising from 90 mentions in the week before the protests started to nearly 500 by mid-November.
And while most Americans still think of the United States as a land of opportunity, a 2006 report from the Center for American Progress showed that among high-income countries, only the United Kingdom has a lower rate of intergenerational economic mobility than the United States. For example, children from low-income families in the US have only a 1% chance of reaching the top 5% of the income distribution, versus children of the rich, who have about a 22% chance of doing so. Simply bringing awareness to the current reality has the power to subtly change public opinion that may be based on rosier assumptions.
Getting Americans to understand current social and economic inequalities of opportunity would be an important accomplishment. Whether policies ultimately change to prevent them, however, will depend on whether the country as a whole decides that they no longer find them acceptable.