Tom Sgouros: Occupy Movement Transcends Politics
Monday, November 07, 2011
I've enjoyed walking through Burnside park on my way to and from work lately, and I find the activity and energy invigorating. One point that worries me, though, is represented in some conversations I've joined or overheard as I passed through, and it has to do with our political parties and the differences between them.
There are a large number of ways in which America's two major parties are supported by government institutions: party primaries are run on their behalf, they appear on the ballot automatically, and so on. There are a larger number of ways in which the two parties are supported by informal institutions: family loyalty, social ties, existing networks of supporting organizations, and on and on. People can argue about the relative import of this factor or that one, but the fact is that we appear to be stuck with these two parties, for better and, frequently, worse.
This is a serious problem for our nation in many ways, but never so much as in those moments when neither party offers representation to a large number of people. During the 1968 election season, and especially after the Democratic convention in Chicago, it became quite clear that neither party was going to support an end to the war in Vietnam. In August 1968, a Gallup poll reported that 53% of respondents felt that the war was a mistake. Leaving out the undecideds, the poll put support for the war at only 27% of people over 50 and 45% of people under 30 (the opposite of what many people think). Unfortunately, neither party nominated a candidate that year willing to speak out against the war, so that mass of people could find no representation.
As the Republicans were more united on the subject of the war, they were relatively unscathed, but the resulting schism damaged the Democratic party for decades, and created a long-lasting crisis of legitimacy. After all, if neither party represents the majority on an issue so large, then in what sense do we have a democracy?
Occupy perspectives are popular
In an alarmingly similar way, the issues behind the Occupy protests have a great deal of support nationally and not a lot of support from either party. Polls from Time magazine and National Journal put support for the Occupy movement's goals at 51% and 59% ("completely agree or mostly agree") respectively.
But here's a mistake often made. Not being represented by either party isn't the same thing as saying there is no difference between them. It takes a fool to deny the differences between our two parties. However, it also takes a fool to claim that what the bulk of the current Democratic party offers is economic populism or anything other than centrist economic pap. Which is a problem because centrist economic pap -- bromides about growth, fealty to the "job creators" who walk among us, and lack of respect for the great mass of workers who made our country great -- has not served us well.
What is the value of the center?
Centrist economic pap is what put debate about the deficit ahead of debate about jobs all last year. Centrist economic pap is how we wound up debtor to the world, having devastated our own manufacturing base. Centrist economic pap is what has put corporate leaders and bankers in the driver's seat of our economy and let's just say their performance wouldn't win any prizes.
The economic policies proposed by President Obama since he took office have been remarkable mostly for their timidity in the face of devastation. A fair amount of that timidity was created by the wobbly conservative Democratic "allies" who held the balance of power in their respective houses of Congress -- not to mention the virulent Republican opposition to anything he proposes -- but not all. Some of it was created by turning to the authors of the devastation for advice about how to get out. As Treasury Secretary for President Clinton, Larry Summers was instrumental in disassembling regulation to benefit big financial players, but that's who Obama chose to head his council of economic advisors.
Obviously, political reality constrains the kinds of actions any president can take, but the deep support for the Occupy movement's goals shows that the widespread perceptions of that political reality as limiting Obama's options may not have been accurate. If the Occupy movement can nudge the mass of Democratic elected officials out of the toxic economic center, it will have performed a valuable service to our country.
If they can't, we're in for a world of hurt, since our two parties will have once again failed to provide representation for a majority of voters.
Tom Sgouros is the editor of the Rhode Island Policy Reporter, at whatcheer.net and the author of "Ten Things You Don't Know About Rhode Island." Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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