The young men and women who launched Occupy Wall Street haven’t yet made our nation one whit less unequal. But these Occupiers have, all the same, overachieved magnificently. They have thrust inequality back into the national limelight—after an absence of generations.
“Disputes over what constitutes economic fairness,” proclaims Bloomberg Businessweek, “are moving to center stage.” Marvels the Financial Times, “America wakes to the din of inequity.”
An incredible awakening. How incredible? The week before Wall Street’s Occupiers set up camp, Gallup asked Americans to name the nation’s “most important problem.” Only 1 percent cited the “gap between rich and poor.”
That gap—between the rich and everyone else, the 1 percent and the 99 percent—now looms amazingly larger. The public has noticed what the Occupiers are saying. The public agrees.
How do we know? The savvy pols have pulled back. House majority leader Eric Cantor initially dismissed the occupation as a “mob.” Now he understands Occupiers’ “frustration.” Mitt Romney does, too. “I worry about the 99 percent in America,” Mitt assures. And the top 1 percent? No need, he says, to worry about them: “They’re doing just fine by themselves.”
Mitt doesn’t realize how ridiculous Occupy Wall Street has made this frame seem. With insights and irreverence, the Occupiers are demolishing the inequality apologist’s most basic of claims, that wealth reflects “success.”
Wealth, Occupy signs shout out from front pages, reflects theft and shell games. Outside Chicago, a protester announces: “I can’t afford a lobbyist. I am the 99 percent.” In Los Angeles: “Trickledown made us pee-ons.” In New York: “One day the poor will have nothing left to eat but the rich.”
George Gallup didn’t start polling until the 1930s. So we don’t know exactly how many Americans considered inequality the nation’s “most important problem” a century ago, in plutocracy’s last heyday.
But we do know that three of the four top presidential candidates in 1912—the “Bull Moose” Theodore Roosevelt, the Socialist Eugene Debs and the Democrat Woodrow Wilson—anchored their campaigns in the struggle against wealth’s maldistribution.
Our democracy faced “ruin,” Roosevelt warned, “if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few.” The 1912 incumbent, Republican William Howard Taft, blasted Teddy for “appealing to class hatred.” Taft ended up appealing to virtually no one. Wilson, Roosevelt and Debs together captured 75 percent of the final vote.