Although the “Occupy Wall Street” movement’s message has been criticized for being unclear, it is beginning to sharpen its focus around demands that government begin to represent the interests of the “99 percent” instead of carrying water for corporate interests and the wealthiest 1 percent. It’s not an attempt to punish the top 1 percent; most Occupy advocates understand that we are all in this together. They are interested in a society that works for 100 percent of us.
The Occupy movement has recognized that corporate interests and the wealthiest people have heavily tilted the electoral system through massive campaign expenditures on behalf of candidates of both parties who are willing to do their bidding. Through their campaign cash and well-funded lobbyists, these interests have effectively taken control of our political process. As one deeply involved in that process, I find it stunning to see how deep and pervasive the corporate influence has become.
The anger and frustration voiced by the protesters has struck a chord with millions of Americans. In fact, the frustration that leads many to identify with the Occupy movement is similar to the frustration that earlier led many to identify with what became the Tea Party.
If Occupy Wall Street had come into being four years earlier, it is questionable whether there would ever have been a Tea Party. Many who identify with it, like many who identify with Occupy, are people who feel they are being left behind in the economy.
Worried about their finances
Their concerns aren’t political; these are simply people worried about how they will be able to pay their mortgage or rent at the beginning of the month, unsure whether they can afford college for their children, scared that they cannot afford to visit the doctor, and aware that they are just a pink slip away from unemployment and poverty.
Certainly there are huge differences between the Tea Party and Occupy movements. But even that is largely the impact of corporate power and influence.
Tea Party organizing is fueled by funding from front groups that receive money from corporate interests. Accordingly, Tea Party organizers have done the bidding of those interests, vilifying government, which once held that corporate power in check. They have effectively channeled much of the public anger over economic injustice into anger at “big government.”
A different target for anger
In contrast, the Occupy Movement has identified the source of the economic injustice as corporate greed. Like Tea Party people, they too are angry at government — but their anger is at elected officials who have allowed those corporations to operate unchecked by the government that is supposed to represent the people, not corporate interests.
These are real concerns. Hamline University professor David Davies provides an illustration of how much harder it is to get by today: Davies pointed out that in 1968, a University of Minnesota student working 6.2 hours per week during the school year, at the minimum wage, would earn enough to pay the annual tuition and fees of $385. Davies wrote, “That was back when education was considered a public good and not a private investment … back when education was for the 99 percent.”
In effect, in 1968 a full-time student working part time, even at the minimum wage, living frugally, could work her way through the U of M. Today, that’s virtually impossible. A comparable U of M student would need to work more than 46 hours per week — more than full time — during the school year to earn the $13,060 in tuition and fees, and still have nothing for books or room or board or other necessities, and obviously little time for attending classes or studying.
Ordinary people see help going elsewhere
Many ordinary people cannot afford college. They cannot afford health care. Their homes are being foreclosed in record numbers. Yet they watch their national government bailout Wall Street bankers — already the wealthiest 1 percent. They see their Minnesota state government plotting an enormous taxpayer subsidy to the MN Vikings owners — also in the top 1 percent — because the owners “need” more money.
The anger and frustration are real. The Occupy movement understands the problem. Now, it is important to channel the passion of the occupation into the nitty-gritty of grassroots democracy. As writer Scott Turow suggests, “Those in tents across the nation should start going door to door with petitions, visiting legislators and building alliances with good-government groups, all in service to a proposed (constitutional) amendment” to regulate campaign financing to prevent anyone from having unequal influence on elections through their wealth.
Until we take the big money out of politics, our democracy will represent the corporate interests, not the interests of the people. Only then will we reform our economy so that people can afford health care and college. Only then will we preserve the environment and the planet for our children and their children.
These reforms are essential for the 99 percent. And, although corporate greed may be blinding some of those who are calling the shots, in the end, these reforms are essential for the top 1 percent too.
John Marty, DFL-Roseville, is a state senator. He first published this article in his newsletter, “To the Point!” which is published by the Apple Pie Alliance.