Since the 1960s, a contradictory dynamic has been at work in the United States. The country has become socially more inclusive even as economic inequality has increased.
Ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation have receded as sources of stigma. Socially, we are more egalitarian than ever before. The reverse is true however with regard to the economy. Inequality is on the march. According to the most recent report from the Congressional Budget Office, in 1979 the top 1 percent of households received about the same share of income as the lowest 20 percent. By 2007 that same highest percentile received more income than the lowest 40 percent. 1.
The energy that made this country socially more progressive is now turning to the economy. The Occupy Wall Street movement holds out the promise that we are getting ready to resolve the tension between the two.
The trend towards inequality resulted from a corporate counter-attack against environment, consumer protection and occupational safety regulations adopted in the late 1960s and 1970s. Republican politicians were financed in order to advance a deregulatory and tax-cutting agenda. Vast sums of money were involved. Democrats' campaigns were also funded -- not so much to advance that agenda, but to ensure that they did not promote an alternative one from the Left. 2.
Corporate political clout was reinforced by two facilitating factors. Campaign costs sky-rocketed because of the increased use of television. As a result, politicians became ever more dependent on the super-rich. At the same time, unions and other mass membership organizations went into decline. In combination, as Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson put it, these developments "dramatically weakened the organized political voice of ordinary citizens on economic issues."
We are only at the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street inspired turn-around, but already the movement is experiencing a push-back from economic vested interests. This extends from the laughable claim that the Occupiers are lazy and should get a job (in an economy with nearly 14 million involuntarily unemployed people) to the disgusting use of force by the police. Such opposition however is very unlikely to discourage the activist opponents of economic injustice. The incongruity between demonstrators going to jail and CEOs who broke the economy continuing to receive multi-million dollar bonuses is more than enough to keep the movement alive.
But there are real problems ahead that are internal to the movement. We will have to debate and resolve them if we are to succeed.
For just as the Southern Civil Rights Movement fifty years ago could only achieve its objectives with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, so it is today. It will take legislation to reverse the trend to oligarchy in this country. Congress will have to enact new policies and programs not only to achieve greater income equality, but also to ensure that the plutocrats will not again lay claim to the political system.
To achieve greater equality we will have to mobilize voters in order to defeat at the polls any politician who opposes tax increases for the rich, regulation of the financial sector, support for union organizing and a social safety-net for the poor and unemployed. Money is important for politicians, but a motivated constituency that turns out on election-day is even more important. And because money is both important and the ultimate weapon of privilege, we will have to design a public funding system for electoral campaigns. Everyone who wants to -- not just those who are wealthy or who have access to private wealth -- should be able to successfully contest for office. Only with such a system can non-elites be assured of a strong political voice.
Difficult discussions are on the horizon. The movement's strength is its diversity. How else could it represent 99 percent? But that diversity also means that consensus will be hard to achieve. It is one thing to agree on what to oppose. That's the easy part. The hard part comes next. What are we for? How can we achieve our objectives?
The movement's capacity to ultimately succeed in democratizing the society remains a question. But the fact that past social movements have created a more socially inclusive and fair society holds out the hope that we now can do the same thing with the economy.
1. Congressional Budget Office, "Trends in the Distribution of Household Income Between 1979 and 2007," October 2007," p. 3.
2. This argument is developed by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, "Winner-Take-All Politics: Public Policy, Political Organization and the Precipitous Rise of Top Incomes in the United States," Politics and Society, Vol. 38, no. 2 (2010), p. 178. The quotation in the next paragraph is from the same source, p. 180. See also their book, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer - and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).