The Democratic Debate Steals Occupy Wall Street Rhetoric

ABC NEWS - 12/19/15 - ABC News coverage of the Democratic Presidential debate from St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH, airi
ABC NEWS - 12/19/15 - ABC News coverage of the Democratic Presidential debate from St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH, airing Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015 on the ABC Television Network and all ABC News platforms. (Photo by Ida Mae Astute/ABC via Getty Images)

Yesterday's Democratic debate, with much of its focus on economic inequality, demonstrated the continuing influence of Occupy Wall Street movement four years ago. This is a far cry from most media criticism at the time, when the OWS was summarily dismissed as utterly nihilistic -- having no focus, no program, no leaders and no lasting legacy. The Wall Street Journal wrote: "Most of America's jobless also won't recognize their values or interests in the warmed-over anticapitalism being served up in lower Manhattan."

Today, all of the three democratic candidates are singing the same song: That economic inequality, the 30-year downward spiral of the middle class and the corruption of the campaign finance laws -- OWS's main themes -- are the most important domestic threats to the American way of life.

To be sure the continuing economic turmoil has been a major factor in creating middle class discontent.

At the Saturday night debate, the same key OWS words, were repeated over and over by Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O'Malley -- "rigged political system", "super-wealthy", "tax on Wall Street."

They unanimously decried the fact that income for CEOs was up 200 percent in the last twenty years while raises for the middle class remained at two percent.

They all wanted to give the middle class a boost. They all denounced the political power that goes to feather the nests of an unelected super-rich. All favored raising the minimum wage. The candidates all supported a tax on Wall Street speculation, and decried the "greed", "recklessness" and "illegal behavior" of the financial industry. "The super-rich can't have it all," shouted Bernie Sander to great applause. Indeed, these tax-the-rich ideas and the decline of middle class prosperity have recently come to influence the presidential political debate in even the Republican party, according to an article in the New York Times. The thrust of the Occupy movement was to take back the economy -- and a political stranglehold -- from a small, powerful elite that has increasingly been using it for their own enrichment.

In the last few decades, OWS accused the One Percenters of creating a self-perpetuating feedback loop, in which rising wealth buys political and economic influence, which, in turn, leads to more rising wealth. This insidious corruption, called "rent seeking" -- the enrichment of a few through the manipulation of government and politics -- has changed the rules of the game and contributed to the hollowing out of the traditional American middle class.

Occupy's role was to be one of the first to define and popularize this rapidly growing polarization. Democratic Party.

Elizabeth Warren launched her political career in 2012 by popularizing Occupy themes, Michael Levitin wrote in the Atlantic Magazine.

Bernie Sanders has based his successful campaign on speaking out against Wall Street greed and breaking up the big banks, as has Martin O'Malley.

Hillary Clinton, the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination, has been pushed to adopt the populist OWS rhetoric of her rivals. She has repeatedly declared that the "deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top."

On the Republican side the the surprising popularity of the outsiders -- Trump, Cruz, Fiorina and Carson -- best expresses voter disgust with the status quo.

Trump's message -- that he will not take political contributions, and thus cannot be bribed by the one percent -- is powerful and exhilarating. "When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do!"

This statement comes right out of the OWS playbook. Think about what this means. It's revolutionary in modern American politics.

In an unlikely alliance, Bernie Sanders backs Trump on this and directly confronts the "rent seeking" behavior of the super-rich. Bernie Sanders said Saturday night that the drug companies, the insurance companies and the finance industry have bribed the American congress with billions of dollars.

It is the great unspoken truth that we all know -- and nobody will say.

The polls show that 62.2 percent of voters think the country is headed in the wrong direction. This is the 11th straight year of wrong-track pessimism in national polls. Since the 1980s the percentage of Americans owning stocks or houses is way down. Middle class income has dropped nearly 10 percent since 2000 -- from $57,724 to $53,657, according to the Census Bureau.

Since 2006, only the top 10 percent of families have seen their income go up. The income of the bottom 90 percent has fallen. The covenant between "Big" government and free markets to deliver a broadly based prosperity has been broken. Previously, the broad base of the American middle class was more than willing to throw their lot in with ruthless capitalism and free markets so long as capitalism could deliver a broadly based prosperity. This is no longer so. Politicians have failed to protect the middle class from the recent economic downsides of a post manufacturing economy, technological advances, globalization, and the free-market ideology that has sucked millions of American jobs overseas.

Increasingly, Republicans are also responding to the plight of the pulverized middle class, while Democrats have been more concerned with the poor and marginalized. Both groups have been losing ground in our changing economy. Jeb Bush has advocated raising taxes on the super-rich by eliminating the carried interest tax break. Ted Cruz recently acknowledged "the top 1 percent earn a higher share of our income...than any year since 1928." Marco Rubio said that reversing inequality could be accomplished by turning the earned income tax credit into a subsidy for low-wage earners. The question the middle class is asking: what is so great about free markets, capitalism and globalization if all the rewards go only to a greedy new American oligarchy?

Structural economic and technological turmoil has turned everything upside down for the middle class. Educated wealthy elites are those most well-positioned to reap the benefits from this turmoil and disruption. To a large extent, the widening inequality reflects political decisions that could have gone in different directions, according to Robert Reich in his new book "Saving Capitalism".

"A Political Storm is Not Coming. It is Already Here" Indeed, as I have written earlier, there have been other past massive political disruptions in American history: Andrew Jackson targeted a wealthy elite in the 1830s; Teddy Roosevelt's revolted against the excesses of the Gilded Age in the beginning of the 20th century; Franklin D. Roosevelt is credited with saving capitalism by providing a safety net in the 1930s; and the disruptions of the youth 1960s profoundly altered our culture, which ironically led to a right-wing Nixon reaction in 1968.

Even Republican strategist Glen Bolger wrote in his blog, "A political storm is not coming. It is already here."

Congress has a disapproval rating of 75 percent versus an approval rating of a mere 15 percent.

The great beauty of democracy -- as opposed to dictatorship and other authoritarian forms of government -- is that public grievances can filter up and must eventually be addressed by the ruling elite. Dictators all start out popular and responsive to their citizens, but, with absolute power, most quickly become tone deaf to their needs.

The role of money in politics has become a dictatorship in and of itself, which controls both the Democratic and Republican parties. OWS performed a critical public service by exposing, however crudely, the dysfunctional obsolescence, the posturing and rent seeking political corruption of both parties. This is similar to the Franklin D. Roosevelt reforms that saved capitalism and our democratic politics from collapse after the Great Depression.

In all likelihood, the angry outsider candidates will not win the presidency. Despite OWS's vigilantism, ambiguous, chaotic goals, the movement will ultimately prove to be the enduring spur to a much-needed, system-uprooting and their "Idea" will be eventually be co-opted by more establishment figures. So let us finally give Occupy Wall Street the credit it is due.

The delivered the right message at the right time.