12/26/2011 01:24 pm ET Updated Feb 25, 2012

2011: The Year the Power Went Off in Washington

In just eight days, Republican caucus-goers in Iowa will cast the first actual votes of the 2012 presidential election. So, this week, we're not just transitioning from one year to the next, but from a non-election year into an election year. Usually, the year leading up to an election year is all prelude -- the pre-game festivities that are quickly forgotten once the real game begins. But looking back, this time was different. In fact, the events of 2011 make it clear that the real game -- the one that feels more vital and filled with more potential -- was the one that began this year.

This year, what was happening outside Washington was much more important than the tired reruns going on inside the Beltway, however slow the media has been to catch up. To Time Magazine, it was the year of "The Protester," who was named the Person of the Year -- a year of the outsider, of the people, of bottom-up power. It was a year in which the juxtaposition between the ongoing failure of our Washington political institutions and the vitality of forces outside Washington became impossible to ignore.

Though the Occupy movement started only three months ago, the inspiration for the movement began in the waning days of 2010. On December 17th of that year, a 26-year-old fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid to protest the ongoing harassment and mistreatment by corrupt government officials. His fiery protest -- and his death 18 days afterwards -- later sparked a revolution.

Just over a month later, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. In May, protesters calling themselves "Los Indignados" ("The Outraged") filled the squares of cities all across Spain. Within two months, an estimated 6 to 8.5 million people had taken part in the protests. In Greece, the protesters coalesced at Syntagma Square in Athens.

And on September 17th, a few hundred activists gathered at a little-known park in the Financial District of New York City called Zuccotti Park. But instead of becoming a one-off item buried deep in a news roundup, the protesters stayed. As their numbers grew, so did their influence. The movement spread far outside the park -- to Oakland, to San Francisco, to Atlanta, to Chicago, and to Washington.

As Kurt Anderson wrote in his essay about Time's "Protester" Person of the Year:

Almost all the protests this year began as independent affairs, without much encouragement from or endorsement by existing political parties or opposition bigwigs. All over the world, the protesters of 2011 share a belief that their countries' political systems and economies have grown dysfunctional and corrupt -- sham democracies rigged to favor the rich and powerful and prevent significant change. They are fervent small-d democrats.

The outsider nature of the movement is hardly incidental to its success. The credibility of our political parties -- and all political institutions -- is at an all-time low. This year was about authenticity more than authority, with the former changing the definition of the latter. Credibility is no longer something granted by institutions. It has to be earned, and it can be taken away at any point. And right now, Washington doesn't have much of it.

According to a Pew Research Center poll released this month, dissatisfaction with Washington incumbents is at a record high, with 67 percent of registered voters saying that "most members of Congress" should lose their jobs. A Gallup poll from earlier in the month put the number of those who think most members of Congress don't deserve to be re-elected at an astounding 76 percent.

Of course, the Occupy movement (70 percent of whom identify themselves as political independents) came on the heels of the Tea Party, which began in 2009, and continues to exert great influence on the political landscape. What the Occupy movement shows is that anger at the status quo is not only the prerogative of conservatives. Sure, the Tea Party is angry. But so is almost everyone else. And now we have clear evidence that there is more than one way to channel that anger.

Given the track record of our leaders this year, it seems unlikely next year will bring a shortage of reasons to be angry. Again and again in 2011, as the country sat mired in crises and the long-term effects of joblessness, declining wages, and downward mobility, the response by the governing class could not have been more disproportionate to the problems.

Like a terrible reality show, each week brought some fresh, completely made-up five-alarm crisis. And the press would largely follow suit, breathlessly focusing its attention on Washington for the latest make-or-break negotiations. And then would come the front-page breakthrough deal that would essentially maintain the status quo -- or eke out a small victory one way or the other. Remember the debt ceiling apocalypse? The one that basically kept the status quo? And last week we had the critical negotiations on the payroll tax deal that have been front-page news for weeks. The result: a continuation of the status quo. For two months. Then we get to do it again. And again. And again.

It's like local news doing a breaking news live shot announcing that the fire department has decided not to set fire to a house after all. Aren't they supposed to be in the business of helping? Why should we be grateful each time we narrowly avert having our economy further destroyed by our leaders? Shouldn't we expect more than a steadily declining status quo?

I'm not suggesting these deals are completely unimportant. It was important that the government didn't shut down and it's important to continue to give working people more money in their paychecks to pump into the economy -- especially this economy. And that's the point: it's the outsized attention still being given to this manufactured clown show in Washington when we actually have very real and growing problems that we could be focusing on.

The latest data released by the Census Bureau puts the spotlight on some of these problems: nearly half of all Americans are either living in poverty or classified as low income. Over 97 million are in the latter category, while nearly 50 million are living below the poverty line. This total of 146 million is 4 million more than just two years ago. Then there's the fact that 4 million homeowners have been foreclosed on since 2008 and a shocking 1.6 million children were homeless last year. For the bottom 20 percent, wages (adjusted for inflation) have gone from an average of $16,788 in 1979 to under $15,000 today. "The reality is that prospects for the poor and the near poor are dismal," said Sheldon Danziger, of the University of Michigan. "If Congress and the states make further cuts, we can expect the number of poor and low-income families to rise for the next several years."

And though the media will continue to be sidetracked by the Beltway sideshow, a national conversation about the real issues finally began to take root at the end of 2011. In the last week of July, for example, "debt" was mentioned over 7,000 times by the cable news networks, but "unemployed" got only 75 mentions. Three months later, and a month into the Occupy movement, "debt" got only 398 mentions, while "jobs" got 2,738.

Likewise, in November, Dylan Byers reported that a Nexis search showed that the phrase "income inequality" was used less than 91 times in the media the week before the Occupy movement started, but got nearly 500 mentions the second week in November. And this month, Fred Shapiro, the associate librarian at Yale Law School, came out with his 6th annual list of the most notable political quotes of the year. Topping the list for 2011: "We are the 99 percent."

Then there was the editor of the conservative New Hampshire Union Leader, who used the following justification to endorse Newt Gingrich for the GOP nomination: "Gingrich is going to have a better time in the general election than Mitt Romney. I think it's going to be Obama's 99% versus the 1%, and Romney sort of represents the 1%." It seems unlikely that such a thought would have factored into a Republican endorsement last year.

But the most important change is in the conversation people are having around the country as Washington continues to fiddle -- a conversation in which they're asking fundamental questions about what our values are and whether these values are represented in our economy. While Washington debates whether to cripple the economy outright or just extend the slowly crippling status quo, those outside Washington are asking if there's a better way to organize a free market, capitalist system -- one that could be both more fair and more productive.

"The movement has triggered lots of important discussions about the balance between rich and poor, capital and labor, current and future generations, and the financial sector and the real economy," wrote Mohamed El-Erian, CEO of PIMCO on HuffPost. For El-Erian, the task now is to pivot from raising awareness to coming up with solutions. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in November, "as we move into an election year, I'm hoping that the movement will continue to morph into: Occupy the Agenda."

And, in fact, that's exactly what many are trying to do. Already there's an effort called "Occupy Our Homes," a national push to help deal with both homelessness and foreclosure by moving homeless families into empty foreclosed homes. And in a HuffPost piece by Molly O'Toole about where the movement goes from here, it was clear that the protesters are preparing to meet new challenges in the next year. "Though the [Zuccotti] raid physically scattered us, it also allows us the opportunity -- compels us, really -- to collect ourselves, re-evaluate and refocus, using the experience of these miraculous months," said 27 year-old activist John Friesen. Patrick O'Black, a truck driver from Morristown, N.J. was just as determined: "People aren't going to stop being upset about the current state of affairs in this country. Why would you possibly sit there and let things get worse?"

As we head into the New Year, and the media continue to get sucked into the vortex of Washington, we should remember that it's what's going on outside Washington that's the real story.

Maybe we need to take Rick Perry's suggestion of making Congress part-time seriously in order to free up some media oxygen that can be used to focus on the real solutions -- the real creativity and innovation -- being summoned to meet our challenges around the country. And what about a dedicated C-SPAN channel devoted entirely to the conversations and solutions outside of our formal political system?

"Everywhere this year, people have complained about the failure of traditional leadership and the fecklessness of institutions," writes Rick Stengel in Time. "But leadership has come from the bottom of the pyramid, not the top."

That's the story of this year. And let's hope it continues to be the story of next year, too.