From Wall Street to Main Street: The Expanding American Civil Conflict
WASHINGTON — Civil unrest is breaking out on both sides of the Atlantic. This year, Greek protestors took to the streets in resistance to government austerity measures. Riots broke out in London neighborhoods in response to cutbacks in government services and rising unemployment. Now Americans are camping out in city centers across the country, following the example of disgruntled citizens who decided the best way to be heard was to physically occupy Wall Street. Although some in the media dismiss this movement as simply an assembly of grumpy leftists angry at the inequities of capitalism, the fact that the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread so rapidly to far-flung towns reveals that it has touched a deep nerve in U.S. society.
Recent surveys show that over 70 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. This year, for the first time, a majority of Americans say they believe their kids’ generation will be worse off than they are. Given the United States’ precarious economic situation, the popularity of any movement based on anger over economic weakness comes as no surprise. Perhaps more interesting is that the Occupy Wall Street movement, at just under a month old, seems rooted more in a sense of civil unfairness than simply anger at unemployment.
Though they have yet to settle on a single coherent message, the “occupiers” seem to share a common anger at what they see as a deep unfairness in U.S. economics and politics that has its root in the preferential access to political power enjoyed by the wealthiest Americans. Occupiers call themselves the 99 percent, and focus on the divide between the United States’ wealthiest 1 percent and the rest of society. The message resonates with working class Americans because so many share the view that, since the economy crashed, most Americans are suffering while the wealthiest are protected with bailouts and preferential tax treatment.
The Wall Street symbolism works because the big bankers got saved while everyone else feels the pain. It is this deep sense of unfairness that attracts large numbers of new occupiers and gives the movement potential to become a serious political force. The dynamics feeding this populism will only strengthen as Congress struggles to tackle the mounting government debt. Middle class Americans feel detached from that debate, despite the fact that its outcome will affect their job prospects and the education of their children. They fear any debt resolution will only benefit powerful interest groups.
Many are asking if the Occupy Wall Street movement is the left’s equivalent of the Tea Party. Despite the quirky libertarian and anarchist views of some protesters, there is real commonality between the factors that led to the rise of the Tea Party as a national movement and “Occupy” activists. Both were built on a deep sense of unfairness resulting from the bank bailouts initiated in 2008. Both have attracted extreme partisan elements but also appeal to a broad group of politically independent Americans seeking an outlet for frustration over continued high joblessness.
The difference is that while the Tea Party focuses on reducing the size of government, the “Occupy” movement is focused on a perception that the pain of recession is not evenly spread due to unequal access to government. Whether the Occupy Wall Street movement will have an impact on the presidential and Congressional 2012 elections similar to the strong impact the Tea Party had on Congressional elections in 2010 depends on whether one political party can align its core message with the basic sentiments of the occupiers.
The Democrats are moving quickly in that direction, asking party members to sign petitions declaring their solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. President Obama’s theme of asking the richest Americans to “pay their fair share” to fund his jobs bill overlaps with the occupiers chief concern. On the other side of the political spectrum, Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Herman Cain were quick to denounce the movement as “dangerous” and “anti-capitalist,” respectively. Romney’s subsequent shift to more sympathetic rhetoric indicates his realization of the movement’s potential to be either a very powerful ally or a problem for a presidential contender.
Indeed, the best approach for Republicans will be to attempt to direct the occupiers’ anger about all things economic at the current President, in the hopes of solidifying blame against Obama, building momentum to ouster him. Though the Occupy Wall Street movement has the potential to be a political force shaping the 2012 presidential election, it does not promise to move the United States closer to resolving its core challenges, either economic or political. The movement has tapped into a very deep and real sense of unfairness in U.S. society, but proposes no solution.
If the Democratic Party can channel that sense of inequity into momentum for their candidates in 2012, it could have an electoral impact. But without a central political priority, like investment in preparing America’s kids for success in the new economy or promoting infrastructure development, the occupiers’ energetic involvement in the political process will not produce a mandate for how to deal with the United States’ economic weakness and debt. That spells more polarization and less compromise. That also seems to be the trap both Americans and Europeans find themselves in — popular anger over what’s wrong but no consensus on how to solve it.
Glenn Nye is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.