Occupy Wall Street and America's Democratic Tradition
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This article is cross-posted from Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.
I was recently talking with some friends who work at the Chicago Board of Trade. Hearing the opinions voiced by Occupy Wall Street protesters, the traders agreed that they’d seen disturbing changes within their industry. While they might have written off criticisms 15 years ago, they’ve since watched the financial sector become more and more based on speculative gambling—with people trying to make profits by moving money around rather than by supporting real economic activity. To a surprising degree, my friends were willing to consent that the system has grown bankrupt. Yet, while they share some of the activists’ criticisms, they don’t like the street protests and are doubtful that the occupations will help our democracy.
I have been sympathetic to their concerns, but I ultimately disagree with their assessment of the protests’ importance. Occupy Wall Street is rooted in a deep tension in American life. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville illuminated how the conflict between equality and liberty is at the center of the American political drama. That we are now having an open and spirited debate about the optimal balance between these two values is a crucial, and welcome, development.
For decades, we have focused on extending liberty in the realm of the marketplace, but this has come at the expense of democratic equality. There was a time when our government approached economic policies with a dual bottom line: Policies were meant to create not only competitiveness, but also social well-being. In recent decades, however, our policy-makers have shifted to pursuing competitiveness as an end in itself, without regard for social benefit. As a result, we now witness a failure to create broadly shared prosperity—a failure that takes the form of glaring inequalities of wealth.
But there’s been a failure in our politics as well. Our system has too often failed to include the voices of working- and middle-class Americans as part of the discussion, privileging the political speech of the wealthy. As Harold Meyerson recently asked in The Washington Post:
After all, did the financial deregulation of the past two decades get enacted on its merits, or because of the campaign contributions and lobbying prowess of the financial sector? The 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had kept federally insured commercial banks separate from investment and speculator banks, didn’t happen because speculative banking had suddenly become safe. It happened because Citibank and other institutions made mega-campaign contributions and lobbied ferociously for repeal. The Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which deregulated derivatives, was enacted because the leading banks believed they could make untold profits if it passed. And because they did indeed make untold profits—in the past decade, banks’ gains reached 41 percent of all the corporate profits in America—they had even more money with which to influence our lawmakers.
Americans are not only feeling a financial pinch; they’re feeling disenfranchised. We have experienced cuts to the welfare state for decades. But what we saw in Wisconsin and other state-level fights in early 2011 was that when Republican governors coupled further rollbacks in social services and decreases in education funding with attacks on some of the few remaining middle-class jobs in America, it created a level of insecurity that drove people—in numbers rarely seen—to voice their concerns outside of an electoral framework. These people used protests because the more traditional channels of democracy seemed blocked to all except those who could afford high-priced lobbyists. The same lack of democratic equality gave rise to Occupy Wall Street, and it will continue to motivate protests for as long as it persists.