Thursday, October 13, 2011

Why Occupy Wall Street Matters

A while back I commented rather archly about the new wave of global protests that lack organization and coherence, and worried that Occupy Wall Street would of little consequence. For once, I am rather glad to be proven wrong. Since the city is starting to push the protesters a bit on their use of the park, it looks like the occupation might not last much longer. With the end perhaps nigh, I thought I'd take the opportunity to look at what has happened.

It took awhile, but the protests found a strong voice and garnered significant attention. In fact, the New York police may have inadvertently made the protests newsworthy through their mass arrest of protesters on Brooklyn Bridge. In general, the protests have put the issues of wealth inequality and corporate greed front and center, and it's about time. To my mind, along with unemployment, these are our nation's most pressing domestic issues. We have spent the last thirty years hurtling towards a new Gilded Age where the wealthiest have a stranglehold on politics and amass ever-larger fortunes at the expense of everyone else.

This was an issue that the Democratic party has been loathe to address, even despite president Obama's apparent concern about systemic inequality voiced in his 2008 campaign. During the budget negotiation in last year's lame duck session, Obama extended the Bush tax cuts for the rich, which have starved the government of revenue, and helped bring on the debt ceiling hostage crisis, which did a great deal of damage to the economy.

The Democrats' consistent cowardice and reticence to do anything about inequality points to their constant fear of being labeled "class warriors." Never mind that the opposing party fights the class war with relish. They retain tax breaks for corporate jets while slashing Pell grants and wages for teachers, cops, and firefighters. Back in the Bush years, Thomas Frank's pathbreaking What's the Matter with Kansas? took Democrats to task for failing to fight for the economic interests of the working and middle classes. If both parties are owned by the corporations, wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage override economic concerns. The mainstream Democratic party is entirely incapable of rousing its base, which is why it had to be done by Occupy Wall Street. Instead of lambasting the protesters, Democrats and the mainstream Left have been falling over themselves to claim their cause. These protests might have been the kick in the ass the party has been needed for years.

Occupy Wall Street's response also shows that the grass roots Left still lives. Since the rise of the Tea Party, it had seemed to almost disappear. Much of this had to do with the Obama administration's triangulation tactics, which rewarded his fervent supports with derision in a political game to claim that ever-retreating middle. I have a feeling that these protests are only the beginning of a new national conversation that will focus on social injustice, and one that will make the GOP look horribly retrograde. Now that the spell of apathy for those on the Left has been lifted, it's now time to organize organize organize. If this spark ignites a fire of political zeal for greater social justice and equality, the Occupy Wall Street protests may very well be remembered for decades to come.

No comments: