The Occupy Wall Street campaign is faltering, despite considerable public sympathy for the social issues which the protesters seek to publicize.
The pickets and other demonstrators focused on a seam of popular discontent at economic inequality in the United States, the difficulty people face in obtaining work, and the failure of wages to keep up with rising costs. The effects of the Great Recession, specifically people losing their jobs, their mortgaged homes and large portions of their 401(k)s, have left millions of Americans unhappy with their own economic situation and their prospects for the future.
Although there is widespread dissatisfaction with President Obama, the public holds Congress in even lower regard. Last month, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll, Congress registered a 9 percent approval rating, the worst in the legislative body's history since Americans were first surveyed on the subject in 1977. Although the president may have erred in reaching too far and, paradoxically, retreating too often, the congressional followers of Rule 9-J, "Just Say No," have offered the American people next to nothing.
One improvement in civic discourse comes from the spread of C-Span and other programs dealing with public issues. We know more about our public officials than we did years ago. We can discern what they really mean, both from their choice of cliches and from their body language. When one strips the gibberish and the platitudes from the remarks of the lawmakers and the witnesses who testify before them, one can get a sense of what is actually going on in the minds of the players.
It is true that they speak in code; that is a convention of public discourse. If many of our representatives said in public what they actually believe, their careers would be terminated. We see how many entertainers, performers or talking hosts have lost their jobs because of words and phrases which are politically incorrect, or capable of offending any group of people, whether racial, religious, ideological or gender-linked. It was said to have started with Uncle Don back in the 1920s on WOR. In reality, this never happened, but it has been so widely told over the years that it has become part of our popular culture.
Speech can be offensive, and the characterization of a group because of the behavior of a small number of its members places an unwholesome and possibly dangerous strain on the fabric of a heterogeneous society. We now attempt to deal with this situation by defining certain abusive words as "hate speech" and penalizing the speaker.
As always, the responsible approach in marginal cases is to seek balance, with freedom exercised with responsibility. At my law school graduation, a quotation was read that I learned was coined by a professor in the 1930s and has been recited annually since that time. "You are ready to aid in the shaping and application of those wise restraints that make men free."
By substituting 'people' for the possibly suspect noun 'men,' the sentence gains at least another century of useful life, unless another euphemism comes into fashion.
The unhappiness expressed by the demonstrators, pickets and campers at Zuccotti Park is by no means confined to one city, state, or region. It partly stems from the belief that government is too far removed from the people, or at least far from the people who are complaining. It is partly a reaction to the resentment expressed against the poor, the disabled and others who may receive public assistance or public (except military) employment. The distaste for public programs may (or may not) have some roots in ethnic or class antipathy.
Occupy Wall Street offers no particular solutions to the issues it raises. Making public services free or more easily available will increase the $15 trillion national debt and promote economic instability. Rich people have far more mobility than the poor, and can more easily move to tax havens. It is not uncommon, however to hear groups complaining but without practical solutions to the problems they address. Sometimes futility raises the intensity of the complaint.
We will watch closely as this grievance spreads or withers, along with the oncoming presidential campaign. Our thought is that the race will be decided by the public judgments of millions of individuals, which will to some extent be intuitive and individually may be irrational, as to which candidate is a better person and which one will do a better job. Television brings the candidates closer to the people, and assuming that the candidates are roughly equivalent in ability and resources to deceive the public, something close to the truth may emerge from the welter of claims and denials. E pluribus unum, out of many one.
What happened on Wall Street is simply that people got tired of the act. Every Broadway show opens and closes; almost all politicians, as well as empires, rise and then decline. What begins as new and striking becomes familiar and eventually tiresome. This is particularly true when the participants are not particularly knowledgeable about what they are doing.
We predict that there will be other disturbances in the pre-election period, and that there will be an attempt to unify the left on a program, just as the Tea Party movement has to some extent organized the right. Time will tell which group gains strength, but one thing that any political movement needs is an agenda, which has not yet emerged from the left, while the right simply offers negativity.
Someone will be sworn in as President on Sunday, January 20, 2013. We hope the person will be able. You have probably never heard of him, but you should add Gary Johnson, the Republican former two-term governor of New Mexico, as a long-shot who should be considered, if these decisions were made on the merits rather than on media attention or scandal.
If Gary Johnson gets anywhere in 2012, remember that you read it first here.