The Occupy Wall Street slogan that represents the movement at its best is a play on the Supreme Court's 2010 outrageous decision allowing unlimited corporate political spending. The banner that declares "This is Citizen's United" represents the Occupiers' hope for a politics of inclusiveness. It holds out the promise of reversing the trend toward oligarchy that the country has experienced since the 1980s.
Between 1980 and 2005 people in every income category -- ranging from the poorest to the 95th percentile -- experienced a decline in the share of the national income they received. Conversely, it was only among the super-rich that income skyrocketed. Households in the top 0.01 percentile saw their incomes grow about five-fold during these years: from about $7.3 million per year to $35.4 million.*
The conventional wisdom assigns responsibility for increased income inequality to the spread of economic development in Asia and to technological change. The argument is that they damaged the bargaining position of American workers in the labor market. But whatever the merits of that argument, it is totally inadequate in coming to terms with what has happened at the top of the income pyramid. The very rich earn most of their income not from wages but from interest, dividends and capital gains. Their increased affluence did not result from their successfully competing in the labor market on the basis of their alleged brains and education. What did it was the political decision -- fueled by huge campaign contributions -- to deregulate the banking system. Hence the need to occupy Wall Street in order to redress the damage.
It is no criticism of Occupy Wall Street to say that the participants have not coalesced around a set of programmatic demands. What this movement is successfully doing is the crucial work of articulating and disseminating the wide-spread sense that governance by the rich is a dead end -- that the country needs a new direction. These activists are resetting the political agenda.
In general terms, the content of that new agenda is easy to identify. The disproportionate influence of the rich has to be reduced and the American political system must be made more democratic. With that, we could do what is now impossible: engage in a deliberation among equals about how to get people back to work while protecting the environment.
It is a certainty that in the days ahead the well paid "intellectuals" working for richly endowed think tanks will inundate the media with critiques of the Occupiers. These attacks will range from complaints about the demonstrators' naivety to claims that they are anarchists and in league with the country's enemies. And Right-wing talk radio performers can be counted upon to up the ante with talk of a vast conspiracy which threatens the very foundations of Western Civilization.
However, the Right's counter-attack will not be compelling. The country is in shambles because the ideology of market deregulation promoted by the rich has been dominant through the years of both Democratic and Republican administrations. What makes this moment different is that the Occupiers have effectively questioned the legitimacy of the rule of wealth. That resonates with increasingly large numbers of Americans who are fed up with the fact that the special treatment accorded to the affluent has resulted in little or no reciprocal benefits to themselves.
The logic of this movement clearly points to the need to make a voluntary system of public funding for Congressional candidates a top priority. Fixing America will require populating the Congress with a new breed of politician, one not tied to the interests of the wealthy. For while the oligarchs may at the moment be on the public relations defensive, the fact remains that they can be counted on to use their wealth to punish any candidate who threatens their privileged status. Because of politicians' dependence on private contributions to their electoral campaigns, Congress as currently structured represents an impenetrable roadblock to reform. The funding process has to be changed in order for other reforms to be adopted.
Providing the opportunity for people who are not wealthy and do not have access to private wealth to run for office with public financing therefore is the gateway to the fulfillment of the Occupiers' goals. Vested interests obviously will resist and seek to defeat those candidates and incumbents who support such a reform. But though money is important, the one thing that politicians need more than donors is voters. And because that is so, a movement that mobilizes large numbers of Americans can be successful. Changing the system of campaign financing is now more possible than ever before.
This is the opportunity that the Occupiers have created. Space has been opened to talk seriously about deep democratic change. And the first order of business should be to put to an end the stranglehold rich donors possess over the electoral process.
(1) Congressional Budget Office, "Historical Effective Tax Rates, 1979-2005: Supplement with Additional Data on Sources of Income and High-Income Households," Prepared for Committee on Finance, United States Senate (December 2008), Table 3.