01/02/2013 01:40 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

Thank You, Occupy Wall Street

The end of 2012 brought, for most progressives, a profound sense of relief. Imagine a last week in December as President-elect Romney finishes off his Cabinet by naming Rick Santorum Secretary of Health and Human Services. Things could have been a hell of a lot worse.

There's a whole list of people to be thanked. Obama's political skills really mattered. Rank-and-file Americans stood up to a barrage of lies. Rank-and-file Americans stood up to the most shameful events of the year -- intentional efforts to suppress their vote. Various politicians did the right thing when the going was tough. Millions of people volunteered to walk, call, canvas, speak, write and otherwise engage in politics. Lincoln made real politics seem legitimate.

But much of that, important as it was, was the veneer on a more basic dynamic. Only a year ago the Tea Party was ascendant, and austerity and tax cuts for the rich were the unchallenged dogma dominating the national conversation. Only when that changed, when an alternative vision emerged, would electoral politics matter.

And the credit for that renewal belongs squarely to Occupy Wall Street and its many Occupy offshoots. The creation of the "1 percent versus the 99 percent" was the birth of a national convulsion. Everyone understood what it meant. It transcended traditional distinctions between Right and Left. It had a peculiarly American feel. It unified people. At the moment of its creation, austerity, debt reduction, small government, and the Republican machine were striding across the landscape unchallenged. Occupy changed that. Tax increases for the wealthy, national health care, corporate dominance, even gay marriage and global warming were seen in a political context that made them easy to understand and easy to bring back into conventional electoral politics.

Obama, whose political skills are considerable, seized the moment, cozied up to Occupy and became the symbol of the new consciousness. These transformations are the way of American politics. FDR reaped the benefits of Norman Thomas, Nixon reigned the Goldwaterites, LBJ assumed the mantle of Dr. King, and Al Gore became Rachel Carson. This is a good thing -- part of the genius of our system. Obama did the same, launched an argument that fit squarely within the Occupy rubric, and skillfully drove it home.

He was helped immeasurably by the Republican candidate, who embodied every stereotype about the 1 percent-ers, and a large number of nutty, dishonest Republican candidates. But that was a combination of luck and mistake by the other side. None of that would have mattered without a change in the national consciousness.

Occupy today is much less prominent; it's sometimes hard to tell if Occupy still really exists. There are still organizations aplenty and their activities are undiminished. Occupy's become what the establishment Left wanted, a bunch of organizations with agendas, manifestos, and programs. In that transformation it seems to have lost its centrality, its unique place in our national conversation. Occupy was the amoeba of American politics, gelatinous, unformed, oozing in and out of the public eye, and irreplaceable in the progressive struggle. It gave voice and name to a visceral cri de coeur, a sense that wealth and privilege were not only winning, there was no alternative. Having succeeded, having won, it deserves, if nothing else, public acknowledgment and thanks.

Thanks Occupy. You made the difference.