Charles M. Blow
When Occupy Wall Street sprang up in parks and under tents, one of the many issues the protesters pressed was economic inequality. Then, as winter began to set in, the police swept the protesters away. All across the country the crowds thinned and enthusiasm waned, and eventually the movement all but dissipated.
But one of its catchphrases remained, simmering on a back burner: “We are the 99 percent.” The 99 percent were the lower-income people in this country — the rest of us — struggling to make a change, make a difference and just make a living while the stiff, arthritic grip of the top 1 percent sought to manipulate the social, political and economic levers of powers.
This idea of the tiny top against the broad bottom even became a running theme in last year’s presidential election. In his January 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said, “We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”
The president went on to rail against tax breaks for the “wealthiest 2 percent of Americans” and about how tax loopholes and shelter allow many millionaires to pay less than “millions of middle-class households.”
Then he invoked a line that he would repeat often: “Right now, Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary.”
There was no better setup for Mitt Romney — one of the richest candidates to seek the presidency in recent decades — who was called by some a modern-day Thurston Howell.
Eventually, Romney would commit his own pratfall of percentage politics, famously defaming the “47 percent.” With that, any caviar-and-toast-points dreams he may have had of flitting away the days in the White House were toast.
Still, it was not clear if the greater narrative of income inequality had legs and if it would move forward as the economy turned up.
I believe it has.
There are signs that the narrative may have taken hold in some parts of the electorate beyond the protesters in the parks and beyond a presidential campaign between an up-from-the-bottom, charismatic incumbent and his awkward aristocratic competitor.
On Tuesday, the nation’s largest city — the heavily Democratic New York City, where the Occupy Wall Street movement was born — sent a message of stinging repudiation to the nation’s wealthiest mayor, Michael Bloomberg: enough.
The most progressive Democratic candidate, Bill de Blasio, who had in effect run as the anti-Bloomberg, was the clear leader in the Democratic primary.
And, for the most part, the city’s citizens seem to have eschewed identity politics in favor of class politics. De Blasio, who is white, was very strong in the mostly black areas of Brooklyn, Queens, Harlem and the Bronx; Bill Thompson, who is black, was strong on mostly white Staten Island; and Christine Quinn, who is openly gay, lost the Chelsea-Union Square area of Manhattan.
There are also national signs of unease. According to a Pew Research Center poll released Thursday, fewer than 8 percent of respondents thought that, after the recent recession, government policies have helped the poor, the middle class or small business a great deal. About five times as many believe they’ve helped the wealthy, large banks and other financial institutions, and large corporations.
And as the stock market soars for those with enough money to be in it, a Gallup poll released Thursday found that one in five Americans say they have struggled to afford food in the last year and that access to basic needs is near a record low.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job market is dire, despite what the unemployment rate says. As Bloomberg Businessweek (yes, that Bloomberg) put it:
“The worrisome part is why the rate fell. The size of the work force declined by about 300,000 and the participation rate fell to 63.2 percent from 63.4 percent — the lowest since August 1978.”
The rich have recovered, but the rest still struggle. This cannot long stand.
So, the Occupy Wall Street movement, which many dismissed as the wails of the young and disaffected without clear objectives, clear leaders or a clear political agenda, may, in the end, have a rather clear legacy: ingraining in the national conscience the idea that our extreme levels of inequality are politically untenable and morally unacceptable, and that eventually the 99 percent will demand better.
(This column originally appeared in the New York Times September 13, 2013 under the title “Occupy Wall Street Legacy”)
Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.”