2011 Politics: The Best and Worst

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," Charles Dickens wrote describing the period before the 1789 French Revolution. For America's rich, the 1 percent, 2011 was the best of times; for everyone else, the 99 percent, it was the worst of times.

The worst: The economy staggered throughout 2011. At yearend, roughly 25 million Americans were either unemployed or involuntarily working part time. But that's not the worst. As Bob Dylan wrote, "take the rag away from your face, now ain't the time for your tears."

5. Global Climate Change accelerated: In 2010 global emissions of Carbon Dioxide jumped by a record amount and they continued to rise in 2011. Arctic ice hit record lows and there were horrific natural disasters across the planet including ten in the US. But for most Americans, Global Climate Change was one problem too many. (Nonetheless, the most recent Pew Poll found that 65 percent of respondents believed it to be a serious concern.)

4. Corporations abandoned civility: While millions of American suffered, corporations experienced record profits. Many used this bounty to "bite the hand that fed them," to attack democracy. The number of Washington lobbyists grew; organizations such as the US Chamber of Commerce spent millions attacking politicians who dared suggest that corporations pay their fair share.

3. Republican Congressmen attacked women's rights: Although elected on the promise they would create jobs and reduce the federal deficit, congressional Republicans instead launched a war on women, particularly reproductive health services. GOP conservatives steadfastly pursued a misogynistic campaign to defund healthcare for women; for example, by defunding Title X to deny family planning services to the poor. But as writer Sarah Jaffe pointed out, Washington Democrats did a terrible job defending women's rights.

2. Republican presidential candidates staged a demolition derby: With Barack Obama unopposed as the Democratic presidential nominee, Republicans had the political stage to themselves and used it to attack each other, in general, and candidate Mitt Romney in particular. Romney entered the year as the favorite to garner the Republican nomination and left the year in the same condition; but his popularity ebbed and flowed and never got above thirty percent of registered Republicans. Throughout the year various candidates rose to challenge Mitt and then fell back: Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and most recently, Ron Paul. As one after another had their moment in the limelight, the dialogue deteriorated and the Republican presidential primary turned into a race to the bottom, a contest where the "winner" was the candidate who could make the most outrageous statement with a straight face.

1. Republicans fractured the political process When 2011 began, Republicans seized the political narrative. They ignored the jobs crisis, a feckless war in Afghanistan, global climate change, and other daunting problems, and focused on "fiscal austerity," their claim the US is going broke. This charade culminated in the debt-ceiling crisis that ended August 2nd with passage of byzantine compromise legislation. At yearend 72 percent of voters disapproved of the job congressional Republicans were doing.

And that's just the top five. 2011 also saw savage attacks on civil rights -- the return of indefinite detention for being "an enemy of the state" -- and new virulent forms of racism, religious bias, and homophobia. "You who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears, bury the rag deep in your face, for now's the time for your tears."

The best: 2011 had only one encouraging sign, the Occupy Wall Street movement. On September 17th, protesters convened in Zuccotti Park in the heart of New York City's financial district and similar protests blossomed throughout the country. Occupy Wall Street is an expression of grassroots discontent with the economy in general, particularly the historic level of inequality; the rallying cry is, "We are the 99 percent".

As a consequence of Occupy Wall Street and the ineptitude of Washington Republicans, the national dialogue changed. The majority of Americans, the 99 percent, shifted focus from the budget deficit to jobs and economic justice. Voters came to believe the real problem with US politics is that corporations and the richest 1 percent have too much power.

In 2012 the challenge for the leaders of Occupy Wall Street will be to build upon the positive momentum and take advantage of the fact that the 99 percent don't like the current economic and political situation. The majority of Americans understand what the problems are; now they have to mobilize to change the system.

The big question for 2012 is who will lead this transformation? So far the Occupy Wall Street leadership seems unfocused. Meanwhile Republicans have become the Party of the 1 percent and Democrats often seem to be "Republicans lite." Who will become the authentic leaders of the 99 percent?

This moment feels like 1955 when Rosa Parks launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders emerged to launch a national Civil Rights Movement that changed US history. That's what we need in 2012.