For the past month a movement with the potential to grab at the core of America’s problems has grown out of Zuccoti Park in New York. “We are the 99%” is not simply a catchy phrase used by frustrated jobless Americans , but a commentary on the disgraceful economic inequality that has arisen in the United States since the 1970s. After WWII, and until the 1970s, economic growth benefited the rich, the middle class and the poor relatively equally. In fact, the middle class’ income grew at a faster rate than that of the rich. Since the 70s, however, the trend has reversed; the wealth of the rich exploded while everyone else has seen stagnant or negative growth. Sadly, the wealth gap has grown to the point that the top 400 families have a greater net worth than that of the bottom 150 million people. A society with this kind of stratification, especially one in which government policy only acts to exasperate this inequality, cannot function well as a democracy.
Politicians since Reagan undeniably have enacted economic policies tilted in favor of the rich. Reagan’s political victory over New Deal liberalism, coupled with the fall of the Soviet Union, deified the idea of free market economics while delegitimizing regulation and New Deal checks of capitalism.
Even Democrats, supposedly the party of the commoner, worked with Republicans to enact economic policies favoring the rich. Under Clinton they deregulated the financial industry, holding a belief in the magic infallibility of Wall Street. The current economic situation proves the fallacy of that ideology. Barack Obama came to the presidency in a “referendum” against free-market ideology, but his solutions to the economic crisis have greatly benefited the banks, corporations and wealthiest few. The rest of America, the 99%, have watched bankers receive bonuses after a bailout, corporations sit on record amounts of cash, Wall Street recover and the richest few Americans continue to profit. Unfortunately, these “99%’ers” have simultaneously lived through a housing bubble, high and unrelenting unemployment, stagnant wages and increasing college tuition costs; this dichotomy strikes most people as unfair.
In fact, it is unfair. Government exists to ameliorate society’s inequalities, not worsen them. Government relies on a majority to legitimize its rule. If a certain faction of people were to gain a disproportionate amount of power over everyone else, a democratic government would want to lessen that inequality in order to pacify those outside of that faction. Today, the small portion of society with a disproportionate amount of power is the richest few Americans who pay historically low amounts of taxes, yet continue to receive outlandish benefits from governmental policies.
America’s democratic government has not done its duty to limit the might of the powerful over the few. Tax cuts and business deregulations favor the wealthy, and both have been championed since Reagan. Obama’s economic policies have done little to change the behavior or practices of Wall Street, even though he claims a goal of returning prosperity to the middle class. Similarly, Democrats have failed, along with Republicans, to provide adequate economical help for the average American. Instead of acting in the best interest of the majority of citizens, Washington has continuously responded to the needs and desires of America’s smallest, and least needy population segment; the wealthy.
This is the point of Occupy Wall Street. Americans have finally become fed up with the inaction, or actions, of politicians who claim to represent them. They are disgusted with the relentless greed (both perceived and real) of America’s wealthiest few citizens who continue to receive tax breaks and economic policies that they don’t need.
It’s not as if every rich person in America even believes that he needs the special treatment, but those who speak loudest in politics are those after a particular goal. The mere mention of a tax increase sends business groups and conservatives heavily lobbying to convince politicians of the “social benefits” of low taxes. The disgusting amount of money that organizations and interest groups can spend for candidates all-but-assures that their pro-wealthy desires are nurtured. Politicians are greedy for power. To gain power they need lots of money. Thus they look to America’s big donors, Wall Street, interest groups and corporations. These groups are greedy for beneficial legislation, which in the case of any “conservative” or “pro-business” group means an anti-tax and anti-regulation stance. Who speaks for the everyday American? No one.
OK, greed certainly may not be the only reason that conservatives support pro-wealthy economic policies. Some conservatives may actually believe, despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary, that “supply-side” or “trickle-down” economics actually improves society because the rich people will invest their savings back into society.Perhaps this was actually true in the past when wealthy people could only multiply their money through investments in industry and innovation. Those investments do improve society because they directly create jobs and spread prosperity. In this case, I can understand how tax cuts for the wealthy could benefit the public, but unfortunately we do not live in such a world. Today, the best way for the wealthy to increase their money is by investing in the financial industry; something that does not widely benefit society but only bloats the investors’ bank accounts.
In today’s economy this theory simply does not work to improve the economy, yet the modern conservative movement has accepted it as dogma. Whether they actually believe they are helping the country or not, the simple fact remains that Republicans openly support policies aimed directly at benefiting the rich. Thus, it is hard for the populace not to decry these politicians as acting at the behest of greedy campaign donors. While Democrats are certainly not guilt-free (their leadership, especially including Senator Schumer of New York, panders endlessly to big interests), Republican’s open acknowledgment that their policies benefit the wealthy (see Rick Perry’s comments) make them more culpable and disgraceful. It is impossible for a Republican representative to even mention a word against tax cuts or economic deregulation because otherwise he will have to face the wrath of the Tea Party. At least with Democrats there is the ability to support economically equalizing policies.
Still, the ability to back equalizing legislation and the actual sponsorship of that legislation are entirely different. The structure of today’s electoral world, especially following Citizens United, has made enormous amounts of money necessary to win an election. While Democrats, most notably Barack Obama, have developed vast networks of small-donors through the internet, these donations simply cannot compare to the donating power of large interest groups and businesses; the biggest of which dwell in the financial world. Thus Democrats have been forced to shed much of their regulatory and progressive taxation policies in order to compete with Republicans for the monetary support of firms like Goldman Sachs. The need for money leaves Democrats incapable to defy the wishes of their biggest donors. If they were not to court this money, Republicans would dominate elections with nearly limitless campaign contributions from the corporate world.
In the end, Occupy Wall Street is fed up with both parties because economic inequality has gotten out of hand. Worst of all, even Democrats, the supposed party of the commoner, have succumbed to the power of money. The protestors want someone, some group, or some policy, to stick up for them. They are hoping to spark that change through democracy to remind politicians that every citizen has a voice that matters.
Barack Obama has begun to catch onto these populist sentiments in his campaign and policy messages. What remains to be seen, however, is whether he will follow up on this talk with a renewed focus on reducing economic inequality and disentangling Washington from the stranglehold of America’s wealthiest. American democracy depends on a relatively equal voice for each citizen. When the rich are able to dominate public policy to the detriment of everyone else, it seems that the basic premise of American democracy, politically equal citizens, has been broken.