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Peter S. Goodman

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Occupy Wall Street: Renaissance, Not Revolution

Posted: 10/17/11 01:40 PM ET

Bravo, Occupy Wall Street Protesters! You have changed the subject of the national conversation and taken us back to the crucial issues of the day -- jobs, economic opportunity and basic American fairness. In place of the droning about fiscal austerity and living within our means that recently dominated the airwaves, talking heads now argue about what produced your movement, while exploring the economic inequality that is its wellspring. Major newspapers that only a few weeks ago derided you as a marginal curiosity, a motley collection of freaks, now cover you as a serious force that could alter the political landscape, and a genuine reflection of seething anger among the citizenry.

But even as you are entitled to celebrate gaining critical mass, one key tension threatens to crimp your movement, one that could ultimately determine whether you burgeon into an effective locus for change or fall away as a merely interesting moment: Can you continue to broaden your base by organizing around the bread-and-butter economic issues that put you on the right side of history? Permit me, if you will, a heartfelt suggestion about how to maximize the odds of success: Tone down the talk of revolution and amp up calls for reclaiming our legacy as Americans: abundant economic opportunity for all.

Your movement ought not be served up as a revolution - a term that is off-putting to many of your would-be allies -- but rather as a renaissance, a rebirth of the economic and political values that served this country well for generations. When you indulge the revolutionary rhetoric, you risk defining yourselves narrowly as a bunch of pseudo-intellectuals who learned this kind of talk on the college campuses that are beyond reach to many of your natural friends. You make yourselves seem like another kind of elite battling the one with the money: People who can afford to camp out on concrete for days on end without worrying about families or financial responsibilities. You risk alienating the working poor, organized labor and the great mass of everyday people struggling to pay bills on wages that have diminished in real terms over the last quarter century. They don't want a revolution. They want what has been taken from them, a normally functioning economy.

The movement that you have so impressively constructed lays claim to representing the 99 percent -- that is, the overwhelming majority of people who didn't receive the lion's share of the benefits that flowed from Wall Street's speculative excesses. You have a credible claim to representing nearly all Americans when you lay out the issues that so many of you speak about so passionately: unaffordable health care, the foreclosure epidemic, the crisis of joblessness, the crushing burden of rising student debt.

You have organized successfully precisely because you have diagnosed our afflictions so well. The economy has stopped functioning for the benefit of ordinary people. The old formula of getting educated, working hard, staying out of trouble and expecting a middle class life has become a tattered dream for millions of people who have done just that only to find themselves needing to get familiar with food stamps.

Demanding that the economy function the way it used to does not amount to a revolution. We do not need new ideological prescriptions. We do not need class warfare (a term already abused by the One Percenters and their bought-and-paid-for Republican allies in Washington, who invoke it to describe the sort of taxation that President Reagan himself advocated). We do not need flags that stand for a whole new way of divvying up the spoils of American life. Rather, we need old-fashioned remedies to traditional problems: an equitable tax code, policies that help more young people get into college, public investment strategies that work with the private sector to create jobs, real reform of a bloated and inefficient health care system. We need sensible financial regulation and justice for the con artists who stole taxpayer money through their financial shenanigans. In short, we need things that we already had before.

Protesters, your deepest value lies in the fact that you can claim to being traditionalists. You are speaking for the old-fashioned notion of America as a community of diverse people united by general principles, not least a belief that people ought to be able to work for a living, afford access to health care, housing and education, raise their children and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

The entrenched order you are taking on amounts to a perversion of bedrock American values. Wall Street has turned our economy into a Ponzi scheme, with taxpayers and working people left as the suckers holding the bag. Politicians in both major parties have been captured by the special interests they should be regulating, allowing corporate money to write the rules to the advantage of the One Percenters -- not least, rules ensuring that wealthy people not pay their fair share of taxes. You know all this already, but it is worth reminding yourselves that this state of affairs is an aberration dressed up by corporate lobbyists as free enterprise. This is not capitalism. It is not rugged individualism. It is not the self-reliance of the frontier that is an intrinsic part of the American DNA. It is plutocracy, and that amounts to a counter-revolution.

What your movement can legitimately claim to represent is the palpable revulsion over this hijacking of the American experiment. From the outside, it seems that you are seeking to reclaim American values that have been shunted aside in pursuit of craven profit for a handful of well-connected people -- in short, a rebirth and not a revolution. If you speak in the common vernacular of the 99 percent, you represent small business owners, entrepreneurs and even bankers, along with working people, the jobless and the sagging middle class. You represent everyone who benefited from a healthy, functioning economy, and everyone who has suffered from the dismantling of a system that worked.

 
 
 

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