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.
American politics a century ago revolved around wealth’s deeply dangerous concentration. Wealth meant to nations, activists preached, what manure meant to farms. Spread evenly, manure enriches the land. With manure concentrated in heaps, the land sours.
The young men and women these activists inspired would two decades later usher in a “New Deal” for America. Unions would “level up” average incomes. Steeply progressive taxes would “level down” incomes at America’s top. By the 1950s our plutocracy had melted away. The fortunes of our remaining rich no longer towered high enough to dominate us.
That more equal America now seems ancient history. Fifty years ago America’s top 400 incomes averaged only $14.6 million each, in today’s dollars. In 2008 our top 400 averaged $270.5 million. The 1961 ultrarich paid, after loopholes, 42.4 percent of their incomes in federal tax. The 2008 ultras paid just 18.1 percent.
At this reality, our contemporary political system merely sighs. Occupy Wall Street is roaring.
Sometimes the roars echo protests past. An Occupier marches past Manhattan’s most elegant manses quoting Edward Filene, an early twentieth-century retail mogul: “Why shouldn’t the American people take half my money from me? I took all of it from them.”
But Occupy Wall Street’s immediate inspiration has come more from Tahrir Square than Teddy Roosevelt, more from the Puerta del Sol in Madrid than Eugene Debs. These overseas movements offer egalitarian visions far beyond any we have entertained.
“A maximum wage for those who live in palaces,” the Egyptian placards read, “a minimum wage for those who live in the graveyards.”
America’s Occupy movement hasn’t, as yet, coalesced around an agenda, visionary or practical. That will come—in time. And this struggle will take time. The movement will have to demonstrate—with small victories—that change can happen. But not too small. The movement cannot afford to shy from broad, bold visions. This challenge the movement seems to fully comprehend.
“If you don’t let us dream,” as a sign read at a Madrid rally in mid-October, “we won’t let you sleep.”
Also in This Forum
Rinku Sen: “Race and Occupy Wall Street”
George Zornick: “How to Be a 1 Percenter”
Tamara Draut: “Occupy College”
Sarah Anderson: “The Costs of Wall Street Greed”
Gordon Lafer: “Why Occupy Wall Street Has Left Washington Behind”