As snowstorms and freezing rain announce the arrival of winter, it’s hard to remember that the Occupy Wall Street movement emerged just a few months ago, in September. Enraged by the government bailout of Wall Street, but not of those who had lost their jobs and homes, angry at the rise of university tuition, frightened by the precarious decline of the middle class, several generations—not only the young—began a movement that quickly spread from Zuccotti park in New York across the nation. “We are the 99 percent,” they chanted, until it became the slogan of the movement. The 1 percent, they explained, owned as much wealth as the rest of the population.
Now that the police have dispersed most of the encampments, often with gratuitous and unnecessary cruelty, many protesters are asking, “What next?” The answer to that question is unclear and will unfold in time, but now is a good time to pause and assess how the Occupy movement has affected American political culture.
Many of these changes are hidden in plain sight. The Occupy movement, for example, has eclipsed the media’s obsessive coverage of the right-wing Tea Party. The difference between these movements has also become clearer. While the Tea Party blames the government for the current economic crisis, the Occupy movement has identified corporate greed and the financial industry as the real thieves of Americans’ lives.
The emphasis on wealth inequality has also made it possible to discuss class in a society in which the much of the middle class has considered itself potential members of the wealthy. As they have lost their jobs and homes, the middle class has come see itself as part of the 99 percent, rather than as potential members of the 1 percent. The taboo on discussing the struggles of the poor and the economic insecurity of the middle class has faded. The Occupy movement has allowed people to discuss the privileges of the rich in a nation that has long viewed “class warfare” as a treasonous idea.
Most importantly, the movement has changed the national conversation. Although protesters have often lost focus and targeted the police or a university as the enemy, large numbers of Americans no longer seem to fear allegations that they are card-carrying card members of a revolutionary sect. At encampments and during marches, which I saw at Occupy Oakland, small businesses demonstrate their support with the sign,“We are the 99%.” Unions, nurses and teachers proudly march with banners emblazoned with “We are the 99%.” Local and national websites for the Occupy movements inform activists of approaching marches and rallies. Fueled by social media, visible everywhere—in physical encampments, marches and rallies—the Occupy movement is hard to ignore.
The movement has clearly affected the electorate. In California, for example, nearly half of registered voters, in the respected Field Poll, responded that they personally identify with the Occupy movement on November 29. Even more said they agreed with the reasons behind the protest.
True, California is a “blue state” well-known for its liberal voters. But the movement seems to resonate among workers, students and the elderly around the nation. In early December almost 40 percent of those polled in the latest Associated Press-GfK poll said they supported the Wall Street protest and 58 percent added that they felt furious about America’s politics.
Politicians cannot ignore so many voices. For President Obama and Democrats, who have demonstrated weak leadership, to put it mildly, the movement is manna sent from heaven. As Democrats prepare to battle Republicans to extend cuts in payroll taxes for the 99 percent, they have adopted the language and metaphors of the Occupy movement. The New York Times quoted Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, as saying “We are changing the debate and the public is with us.” To prove his point, Schumer noted that on RedState.com, a popular Web site among conservatives, blogger Erick Erickson wrote, “I never thought I would see the day, but Democrats are out maneuvering Republicans on a tax cut (for the poor and middle class).”
Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, aware of the movement’s anger at the failure of Democrats to protect the 99 percent, nevertheless says that “the movement’s key issues like addressing income inequality are still wildly popular and Democrats will benefit from that.” On December 6, President Obama ventured into the hostile heartland of Kansas to issue a populist speech that freely used the language of the Occupy protests. Warning that the country was losing its middle class, he noted that the average income of the top 1 percent is now $1.2 million a year.
Meanwhile, USA Today reported that 11 percent of members of Congress have a net worth of more than $9 million and that 57 percent are among the 1 percent. For many activists, those figures confirm their belief that their elected officials do not, for the most part, represent the 99%.
Not surprisingly, conservative pundits and analysts have been blindsided; for thirty years they created and dominated the terms of political debate. Frank Luntz, the conservative guru who taught the right-wing how to frame political ideas, has clearly been rattled by the sudden upsurge of a new conversation he didn’t create.
It takes a lot to scare Frank Lutz, who came up with such brilliant frames as “death panels” to derail health care or “death taxes” to eliminate inheritance taxes. Yet at a recent Republican Governor’s Association meeting on December 1, Luntz told attendees that he’s “scared of the anti-Wall Street effort. ”I’m frightened to death,” he said. The movement, he fears is “having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.”
Trying to educate conservative politicians, he warned them not to mention capitalism, because too many people may think it’s “immoral.” Instead, he urged them to empathize with the 99 percent and to let voters know that you “get it.” He also told them to replace the words “Christmas bonuses,” (which in the financial industry can run into the tens of millions) with “pay for performance.” Conservatives, he said, should not skirt the idea of taxing millionaires by emphasizing how the government “takes from the rich.”
The movement, in short, has challenged the rightward tilt of the political landscape, even if the mainstream media didn’t immediately grasp the appeal of the Occupy movement. In the early weeks, the encampments initially gained visibility and influence through the Internet. Now, in Hampshire, the influential Union Leader, whose endorsement is carefully watched by political pundits, rejected former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney because he “Represents the 1%”.
The New York Times, as usual, took a while to realize that the Occupy movement was a serious protest. By December 1, however, they truly “got it” and ran a headline “Camps are Cleared, but ‘99%’still Occupies the Lexicon.” By then, the Times had clearly understood that the “occupy movement protests have succeeded in making ‘We are the 99%’ a slogan that has became “a national shorthand for the income disparity. Easily grasped in its simplicity and Twitter-friendly in it brevity, the slogan had practically dared listeners to pick a side.”
The article then recounted a series of incidents that revealed how much the movement had transformed national consciousness. Within weeks of the movement’s Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park in New York, politicians began “siezing” the language. In Congress, the paper noted, Democrats began “to invoke the “99 percent” to press for the passage of President Obama’s jobs act, in addition to legislation on mine safety, Internet access rules, and voter identification law. Searches on Google for the term “99 percent,” increased sevenfold between September and October.”
Conservative pundits, and even many liberal supporters, have argued that the movement has no ideas. But filmmaker and activist Michael Moore and others in the Occupy movement have proposed legislative initiatives and policy changes that would drastically decrease wealth inequity. Moreover, this movement has, since its beginning, sent one clear and powerful message: wealth inequality is incompatible with democracy.
Consider, too, that this movement is only three months old. It took a decade for the civil rights movement to eliminate legal apartheid and another ten years to end the Vietnam War. It took a decade before legislation and court decisions addressed women’s grievances. In the age of the Internet, of course, movements can go viral within days. But had there been no widespread outrage and sense of injustice, the Occupy movement would have stalled, rather than spread across the nation. Many Americans were ready to add their voices to a movement that reflected their insecurity and suffering.
As the police cleared the Los Angeles encampment, the prominent radical journalist Robert Sheer picked up a sign, “You can’t arrest an idea.” In a moment of despair, he wrote, “Actually, you can, and the bankers have, as a result, been able to reoccupy Los Angeles’[s] City Hall and every other contested outpost of power throughout the Nation.” Activists, however, instantly protested on the Internet, “You can’t evict an idea.”
I agree with them. The future will reveal whether this movement will gain enough influence to create a more egalitarian society that is the basis of a genuine democracy. But first, any successful movement must change the national conversation and create and dominate the terms of debate. This the Occupy movement has successfully done, for now. Economic insecurity is pandemic. At such a moment, no one can evict the idea of the 99 percent, a slogan that deeply resonates with American people all over the country.
Ruth Rosen, Professor Emerita of History at U.C. Davis, is a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her most recent book is“The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America.” She is currently a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Right-Wing Movements at U.C. Berkeley. Cross-posted from openDemocracy.
Photo: Ted Fisher.
Republished with permission from The History News Network.