Whether or not you agree with them, the Occupy Wall Street protests are fundamentally democratic and have widespread support among the American populace. In the way that the Tea Party galvanized the right-wing base in 2009, media attention from the protests has reinvigorated progressive policy makers and put mainstream Republicans on the defensive. What started as a fringe group of unemployed college students has quickly matured into a populist movement with ongoing protests in more than 70 cities across the country.
Response from the right-wing establishment has been uniformly negative, with each Republican presidential candidate denouncing the tactics and patriotism of the movement. Many commentators have attacked the protesters as an unorganized mob with no real purpose. At Yale, the College Republicans have organized a counterprotest with the catchphrase Occupy Occupy Wall Street. Rather than actively engaging with the message of the crowds, the conservative punditry has done its best to delegitimize the protestors. In doing so, modern conservatives have proven once again their willingness to discard a storied intellectual tradition in order to achieve their narrow policy goals.
In a way, it’s all that can be done. The statistics are undeniable. Since the 1970s, income disparity in the U.S. has steadily increased, to the point that we currently rank near countries like Jamaica and Uganda. Wages for middle-class workers have been stagnant since 1980. For young workers, the employment rate is at the lowest point since World War II. At the same time, the federal government is weighed down by enormous debt, as are many state and municipal governments. As hard as you twist them, it’s impossible to bend any post-recession indicators into anything resembling even a tacit endorsement of our current economic paradigm. There is a lot to protest about.
I stand in full solidarity with the movement. I’m not actively protesting, and there are many who would say that it’s hypocritical to support a movement contrary to my personal economic interests. I’m a senior and, moving forward, there’s a good chance that I will join the 25 percent of my classmates in the financial or consulting worlds next year. As such, I’m more likely to occupy Wall Street from a desk than from a sleeping bag. Either way, I will probably do very well in life. Maybe not 1 percent well, but I have very little doubt that financial stability is an attainable goal for my future self.
But Occupy Wall Street isn’t a movement based on the uprising of the proletariat in an international Marxist revolution. Certainly there are probably a few communists in the crowds, but on the whole, the protesters are as capitalist as I am. These are not radicals; rather, they are patriotic people who believe deeply in the American ideal of equality and justice for all.
Their frustration stems from a sense that the ultrarich aren’t playing by the same rules. Whether we consider misaligned incentives at big banks, corporate tax loopholes that benefit large companies or the fact that there are systematic problems within the public education system, it’s impossible to deny that we have always played the game of life with weighted dice. It’s just that lately those dice have become even more lopsided.
As much as we are all a product of our circumstances, the beauty of American capitalism is that it incentivizes creativity and entrepreneurship. But if America is to continue to be the world’s main incubator of innovation, we need to address the structural problems that plague us. The message of Occupy Wall Street — if such a diverse group can have a single message — is that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be given the opportunity to succeed.
As a liberal, I am excited to see what happens with the Occupy Wall Street movement. And as an American, I’m encouraged and uplifted. Regardless of the eventual electoral results, it’s impossible to deny that a politically engaged populace is a good thing. Our country was founded on the principle that our government derives its powers from the consent of the governed. The Occupy Wall Street reaffirms this principle, responding to disillusionment with action rather than apathy, and is as such an emphatically American movement that has much to offer as our country moves forward.