Occupy Wall Street as talking point

President Barack Obama's reaction to being "mic checked" by Occupy protesters on November 22.

Politicians of both major parties are increasingly addressing—or having to cope with—Occupy Wall Street. So far this has been mainly limited to rhetoric, though perhaps more tangible actions will follow in the weeks and months ahead. Meanwhile, as politicians discuss the movement and add their perspective on OWS’ goals, we’ll also be watching how the movement will respond to the political class in turn.

Last Tuesday, President Barack Obama delivered a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas that framed what is likely to be the central platform of his campaign in 2012. In language that echoed the some of the messaging of the Occupy movement, Obama contrasted the vast wealth of the “1 percent” with the plummeting incomes of the rest. Calling it “wrong” and “the height of inequality” Obama blasted the entrenched government systems and loopholes that shelter the wealthy while crushing the poor. He said “inequality” six different times.

As Chrystia Freeland notes in her discussion of the speech, Obama treated American inequality as “the defining issue of our time,” referencing the outrage expressed by both OWS and the Tea Party. But Freeland also points out that, whereas the Tea Party’s version of American restoration had helped to change the debate in Washington to a question of spending and cutting, Obama’s speech comes closer to OWS’ contention that restoring America means recognizing (and addressing) the power of the 1 percent. And since Obama now seems to be staking his presidency on the idea of inequality, it is becoming increasingly apparent that OWS has offered Democrats a campaign-ready ideological response to the Republican-aligned Tea Party.

But this raises a question: Do Democrats want to somehow join the OWS protests, or just utilize some ideas of the movement for a campaign?  In my home state of North Carolina, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (who is running for re-election next year) has embraced the movement, and protesters cheered her for doing so, even allowing her to turn an appearance at Occupy Raleigh into a short campaign advertisement. Marshall represents a very small portion of Democrats, however, who have risked the political dangers of being associated with such an essentially radical movement. The party’s national leaders, while making use of Occupy rhetoric, have been wary of declaring themselves a part of OWS. Nancy Pelosi, for example, has said that she “supports” the movement—from her comfortable chair during a TV interview.

This wariness shouldn’t be too surprising, though, since the Occupy movement tends to show little appreciation for politicians’ patronage. Occupy Atlanta made headlines in October when its General Assembly blocked Congressman John Lewis from addressing the crowd in support of the movement’s goals. It was understandable; after all, OWS strives to reject celebrity, power and privilege. It’s also understandable that those Democrats who already have considerable power would steer clear of aligning themselves too closely with a movement that relies on civil disobedience tactics.

But what about Republicans? If Democrats are wary of OWS, it would follow that the GOP must be deathly allergic. But Occupy Wall Street has also had an effect on Republican discourse, albeit at the margins. Buddy Roemer—the former governor of Louisiana and now a presidential candidate—showed up at Occupy DC in late November to listen to (and debate with) the occupiers. While there, he defended the importance of the movement: “I told the other Republican candidates, ‘Listen, listen—they’re saying something we oughta hear. They’re saying that the few at the top gets the best of America, and everybody [else] gets what’s left over.’” Meanwhile, Texas Congressman and Presidential candidate Ron Paul has also declared his sympathy for the movement. Despite being heckled at a rally by members of OWS, Paul signaled his agreement with the protesters, saying, “The people on Wall Street got the bailout and you guys got the bills and I think that’s where the problem is.

Roemer and Paul both represent significant outliers amongst Republican politicians. Most Republicans see OWS as a threat to American capitalism or at least an opportunity to score a good applause line from the conservative Republican electorate. Candidate Mitt Romney has called the movement “dangerous,” and Republican frontrunner Newt Gingrich has declared that Occupy Wall Street demonstrates the moral collapse of America, saying to occupiers, “Go get a job, right after you take a bath.” Zing. Applause.

Occupiers don’t seem too phased by the criticism, however, and some have begun to adapt their protest tactics to go on the offensive against those running for office. In particular, protesters have been singling out some of the Republicans for disruptions on the campaign trail and in Washington. For example, last Wednesday night, several activists sneaked into a D.C. Fundraiser for Newt Gingrich, interrupting his $1,000-ticket event to remind him of the suffering of the 99 percent. Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner has also been the target of protests as recently as last Thursday and Thursday night.

As 2012 comes around, those in the Occupy movement will have to decide on a strategy for how they will approach the political system. Will they protest Democrats as much as Republicans, or will they accept the Democrats who offer themselves as allies? Can occupiers embrace particular political candidates without compromising their ideals?

In the meantime, Occupy Wall Street is making a mark among the political class. Because of OWS, politicians in both parties are changing the way they talk about delicate issues like loopholes, tax brackets, bailouts, inequality and free speech. But more troubling to some of them is the possibility that OWS—in calling attention to systemic problems—is pointing a finger at the very institutions they stand for, and upon which their platforms rest. At a Republican Governors Association meeting last week, strategist Frank Luntz discussed his fears about the way the movement has changed the national dialogue: “I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death. They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.”

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