The recent Occupy Wall Street movement has been successful because it does something that our political system has been unable to do: align people around shared beliefs and values. Unfortunately, our current political system is not very good at aligning politicians and citizens to work together towards common goals. The focus seems to be exclusively on battling over areas of disagreement. Our system of elections, for example, virtually guarantees that a centrist candidate, in spite of possibly appealing to the broadest base of citizens, would be viewed as a weak member of their party, and would therefore be unelectable as president.
Our two party system requires that our political dialogue revolve around differences of opinion and the most important seats in government flip from one extreme to another, never settling in to a comfortable medium that might actually rise above the fray and get things done.
Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, has been able to generate a dialogue around areas of mass agreement. Sure, describing themselves as the 99% may be an exaggeration or even a misrepresentation, but the majority opinion seems to resonate in their message . . . a majority opinion that none of our political representatives seem to share or be fighting for.
A recent report in the New York Times for example, cited the national distrust of the government at an all time high of 90 percent. The article goes on to say that “two thirds of the public said that wealth should be distributed more evenly in the country. Seven in 10 Americans think the policies of Congressional Republicans favor the rich. Two-thirds object to tax cuts for corporations and a similar number prefer increasing income taxes on millionaires. Not only do 89 percent of Americans say they distrust government to do the right thing, but 74 percent say the country is on the wrong track and 84 percent disapprove of Congress.”
So it seems in spite of all the political disagreements, there is a lot that we agree on. Given the mass appeal of this messaging, it is easy to understand the popularity of Occupy Wall Street. Most people agree that financial interests have too great an influence on government. Most people agree that America is moving in the wrong direction in terms of distribution of wealth. Most people don’t understand why fundamental needs such as quality education and health care are so expensive, and why the U.S. is less educated and less healthy than many of our poorer neighbors. People are frustrated that tax dollars are used to bail out large companies and financial institutions, keeping corporate profitability and executive compensation at an all time high, while unemployment is also soaring high on the charts.
But Occupy Wall Street has a distinct advantage over our elected officials. It is much easier to get everyone aligned around what is wrong with our country. It is a lot harder to get people to agree with how to fix things. So as long as Occupy Wall Street stays focused on the challenges and vague on the solutions, they will have a big bandwagon with broad appeal.
But I do think there is hope for OWS to rise above just being a protest movement of “change for the sake of change.” If OWS can model a way of maintaining the dialogue around common areas of agreement while developing real solutions to the problems we confront, then they may show us a new way of governing ourselves. Barak Obama had promised this kind of government when he ran for office. With a focus on “the things we can all agree on” and the message, “we are the people we’ve been waiting for,” he promised an inclusive government that would get everyone involved. But he wasn’t able to make it happen.
Some will say he was sabotaged by the Republicans, others will say he was too weak and too inexperienced. Regardless, it seems clear to me that there is no presidential candidate who will take America to where it needs to go unless our system of government drastically changes. And for that, I hope Occupy Wall Street continues to shake the foundation.
What would the world look like, if every person in government, and every citizen of every state, city and township were to stop debating along lines of disagreement? If every person were to ask, what do we all agree on? Imagine if all the energy that we spend on debating political issues were directed towards issues and solutions that are not controversial. I think we would see a new era of progress the likes of which we have not seen since the renaissance.
Can Occupy Wall Street be the movement that gets the American people aligned around common values and moving together towards a brighter future? This remains to be seen. But I am hopeful, and my support is with the “99%.”