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We live in an Occupy moment. Inequality has exceeded the extremes of the Gilded Age, while most Americans struggle merely to stay afloat. Leaders in both parties now serve up dueling populist appeals. President Obama calls inequality the “defining challenge of our time.” Jeb Bush echoes that statement, proclaiming that “the opportunity gap is the defining issue of our time.” Even Mitt Romney, before he gave up on another presidential run, decried a country in which “the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty in America than ever before.”
But extreme inequality has been growing for years—indeed, working people have been losing ground for more than three decades. Moreover, bad times come and go, while poverty has been with us forever. So why has populism become the coin of the political realm now?
Surely, it is Occupy Wall Street—the brazen movement that briefly occupied city squares across the country in 2011—that helped to turn inequality from an accepted condition into a political issue. Occupy was scorned for not having a platform; its organizers were dismissed as idealistic anarchists; and its time in the sun was brief. But its message—“We are the 99 percent”—and its indictment of Wall Street and the greed of the 1 percent were electric. Occupy transformed the national debate and gave Americans a new way of looking at things. The media began reporting on “the new inequality,” and Barack Obama borrowed the message for his re-election campaign. The limits of the old debate were shattered.
Movements Drive Political Change
America’s two parties, we are told, are more polarized than ever. Yet the choices they offer are remarkably constricted. A suffocating bipartisan consensus cloaks the defining elements of our political economy: a national-security state that polices the world; global trade and tax policies that protect the interests of multinational banks and corporations; Wall Street greed and the financialization of the economy; the slow erosion of public capacity and investment; our remarkably stingy shared security, from healthcare to retirement; the purblind poisoning of the planet. Both parties accept the basic ways that the deck is stacked to favor the few.
The consensus undergirding these policies has survived military defeat and financial debacle. The two parties wage furious debates about the color of the frosting, but the cake is already baked. Only independent citizens’ movements have any chance of disrupting the kitchen.