10/18/2011 12:34 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2011

Occupy Wall Street's Middle Class Vision for the Left

When the second Google hit (after Wikipedia) for "corporate cronyism" links to a speech by Sarah Palin, you know why progressives need Occupy Wall Street.

Occupy Wall Street's power lies in the "We are the 99%" theme. The poignant and evocative stories on the Tumblr of that name feature hard-working, settled, middle-class families who have had the rug pulled out from under them by recent economic conditions. A single mom who put herself through college and grad school only to lose her job due to chronic illness, who now can't sell her house and worries that her children and grandchildren don't have much of a future. A 38-year-old cancer survivor, unemployed and with $50,000 in student loans, who can't get health insurance. A 21-year-old making $10.50 an hour at one job and looking for another so she no longer has to choose between paying bills and eating, who sleeps in her car because she can't get approved for an apartment. Her parents can't help because her father lost his job, "the bank took our house," and her mother is sick and can barely afford her medicine.

These are stories of the tremendous toll taken by the Great Recession on middle-class Americans who have done everything right: they work hard, seeking a second job if the first cannot support them; they scrimp and save to buy a house; they pay their bills on time. And then they tumble out of the settled middle class due to illnesses, or a lost job, or an accident -- things over which they have no control.

These are stories of the group that has shifted sharply Republican since 1970. Actually, it's only the whites in this group who have shifted: Blacks of all classes still vote overwhelmingly Democratic. But Democrats have lost many nonunionized whites in what Theda Skocpol has called the "missing middle" -- the middle 50% of Americans, whose median income is $64,000. I will call them blue collar, although the sad fact is that many of the blue-collar jobs that offered a stable middle class life have long since disappeared, leaving many in low-paid pink or routine white-collar jobs that offer very low pay and no benefits.

Occupy Wall Street's focus on this group is a big change from the Democrats' focus, since about 1965, on the poor -- the bottom third of Americans whose median income is $19,000. While the poor no doubt need help, so do the missing middle. While the standard of living of blue-collar families doubled between the end of World War II and 1973, blue-collar jobs disappeared after that, and the standard of living in blue-collar families stalled out despite the fact that wives entered the workforce. Even more devastating, the cherished stability these families enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s evaporated due to the "great risk shift" documented by Jacob Hacker. That's the message of the "We are the 99%" movement.

Understandably, Republicans are alarmed. They have launched a counteroffensive called "We are the 53%" -- that's the percentage of Americans who pay federal income taxes. This represents a move that, for Republicans, is tried and true: it seeks to bond the missing middle to the business elite. For once, progressives are contesting this narrative by articulating in very clear and concrete terms what blue-collar families share with newly vulnerable professionals.

So Occupy Wall Street has definite potential. It's worth pointing out, though, that this potential can easily be squandered. Republicans already have begun to malign the movement as composed of "trust fund hippies." This is a smart move. One of the things that drove blue-collar whites out of the Democratic camp was the rise of hippies and yuppies (or trustafarians) whose willingness to take risks were -- unbeknownst to them -- perceived as enactments of upper-middle-class privilege. It didn't help when hippies called the police -- who had good, stable, respected blue-collar jobs -- "pigs."

I hope that Occupy Wall Street avoids all this. If they reinforce the trust fund narrative, their activism will further reinforce the hold of Wall Street Republicans. But if they avoid that, and if the Democrats take the hint and begin to listen to the 99%, Occupy Wall Street could be the beginning of something big.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.