The ‘99 percent’ movement: Will it matter?

Even as Occupy Wall Street enters its second month and spreads to more than 60 cities across the U.S., critics are still asking what the movement is all about.

Occupy Wall Street continues to gather momentum, said Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times, with satellite protests in more than 60 American cities. Yet as the growing protest enters its second month, critics are still asking what it’s all about. The answer is simple: “income inequality.” The wealthiest 400 people in the U.S. are now worth more than the bottom 150 million Americans. Three years after taxpayers bailed out the Wall Street gamblers whose recklessness plunged the country into the Great Recession, the average pay in the securities industry is $361,000, and the gap between the rich and everyone else is wider than ever. And the rich continue to rig the game, using their wealth to buy off politicians, and lobby for laws and tax policies that help them at the expense of everyone else. No wonder, as Al Gore aptly put it, we’re now seeing “a primal scream of democracy.” Democrats now have a unique opportunity to get behind this “simple demand for economic justice,” said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post. Republicans, who leap to the defense of Wall Street at any opportunity, are “trapped on the wrong side of the issue.” Occupy Wall Street is “the right cause at the right moment,” and the Obama administration had better get on board.

Not if Obama wants to get re-elected, said Charles Gasparino in the New York Post. I have spent some time with the protesters in Zuccotti Park, the “movement’s headquarters” in the heart of Manhattan, and I can tell you that most of the protesters are demanding a “socialist revolution.” Holding flags bearing Che Guevara’s iconic face, these would-be revolutionaries call each other “comrade” and hand out pamphlets advocating Marxism as a “cure-all for the inequalities of the American economic system.” If the Democrats do embrace Occupy Wall Street, said Douglas Schoen in The Wall Street Journal, “it may cost them the 2012 election.” When the party backed the anti-war crowd in 1972, Republicans won four out of the next five presidential elections. Democrats ought to be wooing independent and moderate voters, not radical leftists who are “dangerously out of touch with the broad mass of the American people.”

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Don’t be so sure, said Brian Montopoli in Polls show that the “99 percent” movement is resonating with millions of people not present at the protests; the belief that wealthy Americans have grown too rich while the majority have been left behind is “shared by Americans across the political spectrum,” whether rich, poor, Republican, or Democrat. If you tune out the “anti-capitalist claptrap” of the usual “lefty fringe groups,” said Will Marshall in, you’ll hear the “plaintive cry of a middle class in distress.” Who isn’t angry that Washington bailed out the big banks, which immediately went back to awarding their executives obscene bonuses, while failing to rescue the millions of middle-class Americans who lost their jobs and their savings? That “bipartisan dereliction of duty” is what unites the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.

That’s why all politicians should heed the ongoing cry of distress, said Rich Lowry in On the “99 percent” website, the stories that inspire the movement are a “stark pointillist portrayal of the grinding misery of the Great Recession”: a construction worker laid off from his job, now doing menial labor for $12 an hour; “hard-pressed single moms” who can’t afford health care; the Harvard graduate who owes $60,000 and can’t find a job. This is a moment that calls for bold political leadership and genuine economic reforms. But Obama’s only “misbegotten contribution” has been a costly, ineffective health-care law, and the Republican candidates don’t even seem to be aware of “the troubles of workers down the income scale.” This movement isn’t about the “puerile ideology” of people waving Che flags. It’s about the “downward mobility” of middle-class Americans, and the failure of politicians to stop their free fall.

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