Power in the Message: "We Are the 99%"

While the GOP has been searching behind bowling alleys and between couch cushions for a new mascot, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has managed to refocus political debate on one of the most basic and important questions: Who should hold the reins of political power in America?

Despite all the voices in the media still lamenting the lack of "clarity" in the OWS movement, the simple phrase "We are the 99%" has sparked debate about the damage caused to our society--and our future--when the greed of massive, unregulated corporations overwhelms the power of citizens.

This debate has taken the form of moral statements circulating both in the streets and in the ongoing discussions about OWS cycling through global social media. These moral statements sound like this:

  • American should not be forced to submit to the will of obscenely wealthy individuals hiding in the gilded halls of unregulated corporations.

  • America's economic and legal systems should not be rigged such that our gross domestic product becomes a vast pipeline of wealth flowing from the majority into the coffers of a microscopic few.
  • Decisions about America's future should be consistent with the will of ordinary people and in the best interests of the public good.
  • Many of us who have been inspired by the OWS movement are not in any way surprised that America in 2011 desperately needs a street-level protest movement to get this fundamental debate started about the value of a citizen-driven public politics versus the dangers of rule by corporate force. These debates have been ongoing for years on blogs, at political conventions, and in the various voluntary associations that make up America's political landscape. Moreover, they are debates happening on both the right and the left.

    Decades of rising rule by corporate force have left America with massive, unattended problems. Unless we find a way to wrest control of government and the economy from corporations determined to increase their own wealth at the expense of all else, these unattended problems risked the very survival of the United States. Such has been the subject of discussion--often very heated--in American politics for quite some time.

    The OWS movement is the public-face of those debates about the problems visited on this country by the deregulation of the financial markets, the tilting of the tax code in favor of the wealthy, and--perhaps most importantly--the legal canonization of corporate personhood. All these topics, and the myriad subtopics they give rise to, had already generated hundreds of thousands of pages and hours of debate before even one person showed up in Zuccotti Park with a sign.

    Beyond its success as a catch phrase for a growing political movement, therefore, "We are the 99%" has brought to broad public awareness these debates, but it has also taken these debates a step further.

    By focusing on equal political participation and unanimous consent, OWS has restored the American tradition of political compacts to the center of the public square.

    Democracy based on"compact" simply means that citizens come together and act in unison for the benefit of all--and we do so because we share common goals that we cannot accomplish alone.

    It is truly depressing that so many Americans had long-since forgotten this most basic power afforded to citizens in our country--the power to come together voluntarily and make decisions in the interest of everyone. But forgotten it we had. This national amnesia speaks to the true success unregulated mega-corporations have had in rewiring our collective imagination, such that it no longer de facto emphasizes the public good, but leans instead toward what is good only for the shockingly wealthy among us.

    And yet, the challenges we have overcome through the basic act of coming together to forge compacts are the true hallmarks of national achievement over centuries of enduring prosperity in this country.

    In response to the problem of Americans who worked hard their whole lives only to die poor, for example, desperate and alone, we came together and created a compact between generations called "Social Security."

    In response to the problem of Americans who worked hard their whole lives only to not have enough money to pay for the basic healthcare challenges faced by everyone as they age, we came together and created a compact among citizens called "Medicare."

    In response to our conviction that Americans who work hard their whole lives should still always the opportunity to provide their children with a good education, we came together and created a compact among citizens called "public education."

    For just about every need greater than ourselves, ordinary Americans have come together and enacted programs that serve the basic needs of a society so that we can endure as a society.

    We have created these compacts not out of hatred for business or wholesale animosity towards wealth, but because we understand that a society that chooses to amass wealth at the expense of the well-being of its elderly, the education of its children, and the destruction of its natural resources--that is a society that will not endure. And we want to endure.

    Unfortunately, over the past 20 years, the desire of a few individuals to horde money at all costs has grown so powerful that it not just eroded our faith in the democratic compacts we created to nourish and protect this country, but also weakened our resolve to create the new compacts we so desperately need to weather the challenges ahead.

    "We are the 99%," in other words, is not just a catchphrase critique of corporate power, is not just a chorus of frustration aimed at the financial sector. It is a clarion call to Americans everywhere to remember the power of the American compact--to remember their power.

    To solve the problem of unemployment, for example, we must come together and agree on what is best for everyone, and not allow gilded corporate lobbying firms to rule our economy by force.

    To solve the problem of environmental stewardship, we must come together and agree on what is best for everyone, and not allow arrogant petroleum companies to rule our energy supply by force.

    To solve the problem of public health, we must come together and agree on what is best for everyone, and not allow soulless insurance companies to rule our bodies by force.

    To solve the problem of financial cycles of boom and bust, we must come together and agree on what is best for everyone, and not allow a small cadre of Wall Street insiders rule our banking sector by force.

    To solve the problem of national security, we must come together and agree on what is best for everyone, and not allow the military industrial conglomerates to rule our foreign policy by force.

    We had forgotten the value of compacts in American history, forgotten this essential form of political power and its importance for our country.

    With so many shouting, writing, and holding up signs bearing the simple message, "We are the 99%"--people everyone are starting to remember.