A lot of us have to confess something about the Occupy Wall Street protests: we have a hippie problem. As a post-boomer, I’ve been trained to giggle at them my whole life. And anyone who has had to listen to an unsought diatribe about corporations in a line at Target, or has a friend who’s been trying to talk you into going to Burning Man for a decade, will know what I’m talking about. The crustier edges of the fringe can be as smug as they are alienating—from replacing applause in Zuccotti Park with silent finger-wiggling to the occasional, asinine assertion that the U.S. government is a greater evil than al Qaeda. I have to say I feel exactly the same ambivalence toward the Tea Partiers, with their strange 18th-century costumes, occasional racist diatribes, and gun-toting. Their cultural signifiers distract from their message—which is diffuse and vague enough to begin with. Before too long, I find myself inclined to move on, to zoom out.
And yet this time, the goddam hippies, as South Park’s Eric Cartman famously calls them, have slowly drawn me back in. Maybe it was seeing a more diverse crowd in D.C. than I expected, or absorbing online testimonies from 99 percenters, or reading yet another story about how corrupt the banking system has become (Citigroup was the latest to have me fuming). Maybe it was seeing the same kind of phenomenon popping up in Frankfurt and Madrid or Tel Aviv or outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. From the massive crowds in Madrid, bursting at one point into a mass singing of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” to the tent cities in Israel, bringing right and left together against poverty, it all suggested a much deeper shift in consciousness than a mere pop-cultural fad. So somewhere along the line, my skepticism began to falter. And in a strange kind of way, Occupy Wall Street made me think more fondly of the Tea Party as well.
The theme that connects them all is disenfranchisement, the sense that the world is shifting deeply and inexorably beyond our ability to control it through our democratic institutions. You can call this many things, but a “democratic deficit” gets to the nub of it. Democracy means rule by the people—however rough-edged, however blunted by representative government, however imperfect. But everywhere, the people feel as if someone else is now ruling them—and see no way to regain control. In Europe, you see millions unemployed because of a financial crisis that began thousands of miles away in the U.S. real-estate market—and grim austerity being imposed to save a currency union that never truly won mass democratic support in the first place. In the U.S., the hefty majority for sweeping reform behind Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 has been stopped in its tracks by slightly more than half of one House in the Congress and by a historically unprecedented filibuster in the Senate. Even when it is perfectly clear what the only politically viable, long-term solution is to our debt crisis—a mix of defense and entitlement cuts and tax increases—it is beyond our democratically elected leaders to reach a deal. In fact, one major party has gone on record declaring that it would risk national default rather than cede a millimeter on taxes. The Tea Partiers too are revolting against a Republican establishment that overspent and overborrowed throughout the Bush-Cheney years, and treated principled conservative critics as traitors or irrelevant. Bush and Cheney also failed to do what any viable government must: secure the border so that it can recognize who is a citizen and who is not. Members of the Tea Party too feel disenfranchised and alienated—from a popular culture that seems hostile to traditional ways of life to a political system so in hock to special interests that pork and partisanship triumph over sane budgeting time after time after time.
You can ignore much of this if the economy is generating enough jobs and sufficient dynamism to distract attention. That’s why Dancing With the Stars exists. But after the deepest recession since the 1930s, the patience runs out. That, it seems to me, is the core of what has been happening. The global public, more aware than ever of what is going on in the world, and more able than ever before to share ideas, facts, experiences, and testimonies, is acutely sensitive to the vested interests of the powerful who stand in the way of their dreams. In recent years they have risen up outside the box of conventional politics. In 2008 vast new numbers of Americans transformed the political process through social media and small-donor fundraising, electing a rank outsider, Obama, who challenged the natural heirs to the old system, the Clintons. The next year Iranians, empowered by the same technologies, called their own leaders’ electoral bluff and nearly changed the world. This year the very same empowerment gave us the Arab Spring. Even now, in Syria, after unimaginable intimidation and brute violence, thousands still manage to protest in the streets—at night if they have to. More obscured, but just as tenacious, public demonstrations in China have rattled the government. Even the Burmese junta recently gave in to public pressure and scrapped a major dam development.
The revolts in the West require nothing of the courage displayed by Egyptians or Syrians or Tunisians standing up to tanks and bullets and torture. But they have a similar dynamic. They have occupied public spaces in the center of cities, as if to reclaim ownership of a society they feel has been privatized into nonexistence. This is not Protest Wall Street; it is Occupy It. It does not march through; it stops and sits and waits—as if the genie of Tahrir Square could not be kept bottled up in Egypt for very long. The very act is empowering, a form of theater as well as politics. But the theater works only when it reflects underlying truths—truths that cut through cultural divides. Because this is not the 1960s. These are not the children of the affluent acting out for sexual and personal liberation. They are the children of the golden years of hyped-up, unregulated, lightly taxed capitalism—now facing the same unemployment and austerity as the rest of the world.
And that’s why polls have shown unusual support for the basic complaints of the hippies. The Occupy movement has, according to recent polling, significantly more general support than the Tea Party, and its specific demands are highly popular. Huge majorities agree that corporate special interests have too much clout in Washington, that inequality has gotten out of control, that taxes can and should be raised on the successful, that the gamblers of Wall Street deserve some direct comeuppance for the wreckage they have bestowed on the rest of us. Polling data do not show a salient cultural split between blue-collar whites and the countercultural drum circles in dozens of cities around America. And the facts are behind the majority position. Social and economic inequality is higher than it has been since the 1920s, and is showing no signs of declining.
Sure, multinational corporations have rescued millions from poverty in the developing world in the last decade. But they have also outsourced more and more blue- and white-collar jobs away from the West, pioneered technological innovation that has made entire professions—remember travel agents? librarians? secretaries?—redundant, and rewarded the brilliant and driven at the expense of the middle class and the job security it once enjoyed. Even great Western products like the iPhone now actually employ more Chinese than Americans in their manufacturing. People rightly wonder how they can ever master these powerful forces again. And, yes, the income numbers are staggering by any measure. From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, the median American household saw its income double. Since then: a screeching halt, or barely a 5 percent rise in incomes for the less-affluent 90 percent of Americans. But between 1979 and 2007, the top 1 percent saw their incomes soar by 281 percent. Add to that the collapse in home values, and soaring costs for health insurance and college, and it becomes remarkable that we haven’t seen much more unrest. I believe the man who posted the following statement online: “I work 3 jobs. None which provide health insurance. My son is on Medicaid. We are on W.I.C. We’re 1 paycheck from disaster. I am the 99 percent.” Do we not all know someone like him?
Add to this what can only be called an “accountability deficit.” The financial sector and its deregulated leverage binge in the Clinton and Bush years greatly benefited the top 1 percent. Much of this, we now know, was based on obscure mathematical formulas no one fully understood at best and were direct scams against their own customers at worst. What was Wall Street’s response? A furious attempt to resist any new regulation, a refusal to take full responsibility for the mess, and eager participation in a bailout paid for in part by their victims. Do we really need to understand why some have reached a snapping point—now that Wall Street is lobbying to repeal the one reform that reined it in, Dodd-Frank? In Europe, the same arrogant dynamic prevailed. Government elites merrily agreed to the euro, and then promptly violated all the rules designed to make it work—especially if it meant keeping spending under control. Large pluralities were opposed to this—majorities in some countries—and yet the European project continued its inexorable path to an unsustainable present. And who now pays the price? Not the elites. Largely the young, the poor, and, yes, the increasingly desperate middle class.
Unlike in Europe, crude redistribution from rich to poor is still highly unpopular in America—and even more so in the last few years. Americans still rightly want merit to be rewarded and don’t like class warfare. But raising taxes on those who have benefited the most from the past 30 years to help reduce the debt is not class warfare. It’s an obviously pragmatic attempt to get some fiscal sanity back, which is why the Republicans have been sounding a little less intransigent on Capitol Hill lately. In that sense, Occupy Wall Street is also Restore Main Street. Some on the fringes seem skeptical of capitalism as a whole, but most seem to believe that what we currently have is not real capitalism, but a mixture of debt, cronyism, and corruption. The collapse of faith in big government is hard to distinguish from the collapse of support for big business—especially when the tax code reads like a conspiracy between them against the rest of us. And once the public loses trust in the core fairness of the economic and political system, we’re in deeper trouble than we realize.
There is simply a limit beyond which economic inequality threatens democratic life, when the majority suspect that a tiny minority has fixed the system beyond repair through the existing institutions, and when the powerful minority begins to think of its own interests as distinct from the interests of its compatriots. That moment is one of real danger, especially when those elites can move themselves and their money more easily across the planet than ever before, and it is a sign of responsibility, not irresponsibility, to focus on it. Among the oldest authorities insisting on just such an issue was Aristotle, whose emphasis on the middle classes as the core strength of a viable democracy remains as true today as it was thousands of years ago. And Aristotle was not a hippie. Nor were Disraeli or Bismarck, two 19th-century conservatives who deployed government to prevent their countries from splitting into alienated haves and have-nots, and fearful of real radicals who could come along to exploit the gap.
What we’re seeing today, I suspect, is a natural swing back against the excesses of the last 30 years of roller-coaster, globalizing capitalism and those who are still trying to co-opt the spoils. It’s not so much a matter of left or right, but of balance. I supported the Reagan reform as a counterweight to liberalism’s overreach in the 1960s and 1970s. But for the same reason, I find Occupy Wall Street strikingly relevant today. Tax revenues, after all, haven’t been this low in half a century; tax rates remain well below what they were under that radical, Eisenhower. And the only way we will achieve serious cuts in entitlements—the other half of the equation for fiscal balance—is if people believe that everyone is sacrificing something. That includes the rich. That isn’t ideology. It’s common sense.
In that respect, these goddam hippies are not as radical as they might seem. They are asking for a return to an older America that the Greatest Generation would have instantly recognized and approved of—fiscally sound, socially balanced, politically stable. Behind the patchouli and nose rings is an argument: that we have to be in this cycle of transformative, destabilizing world history together, or we will fall apart. We can achieve this civilly ... or, at some point, violence, as in Greece or, worse, Libya, could unfold.
And so Obama’s promise is finally achieved without Obama—which was the point in the first place, remember? We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, as he put it. Cringe-inducing dreadlocks and all.