Occupy Wall Street’s Messages Resound a Year Later

September 17, 2012

by Jeremy Leaming

Yeah it’s Constitution Day, and we have a blog symposium for that. But today also marks the anniversary of a gathering of protests aimed at blasting the risky ways of large financial institutions that brought on a global meltdown and America’s Great Recession. Occupy Wall Street protests also railed against the increasing corporate control of politics, and helped raise awareness of economic inequality that undermines democracy.

When those protests gathered steam and formed organization in places like New York’s Zuccotti Park, many right-wing pundits, like some on Fox News, belittled the protests as run by brain-addled youngsters and aging hippies with no real message. (Some on Fox News also expressed amazement at why any person would care about economic inequality.) But like so much of what spews from cable news carnival barkers, they were wrong.

As Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick put it, many of the OWS protesters were exceedingly clear in their messaging. “They are holding up signs that are perfectly and intrinsically clear: They want accountability for the banks that took their money, they want to end corporate control of government. They want their jobs back. They would like to feed their children. They want – wait, no we want – to be heard by a media that has devoted four mind-numbing years to channeling and interpreting every word uttered by a member of the Palin family while ignoring the voices of everyone else.”

In a Sept. 14 post on OccupyWallStreet, website the “common villain” is Wall Street, which “is robbing the 99% blind on behalf the 1%.”

Likely a little hyperbole, but part of its message centers on the fact that for far too long, economic policy has been driven by lawmakers who cater to the superrich, ignoring a growing wealth gap and larger numbers of people falling into poverty.

In So Rich, So Poor, Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman explains how right-wing economic policy has created a wholly ineffectual social safety net.

“The American safety net is much more fragmented than that of every other industrialized country, and its biggest hole is its deterioration with regard to the utterly destitute,” Edelman, a member of the ACS Board, writes.

The damage to the nation’s social safety – helped enormously by the so-called welfare reform act enacted in 1996 – has moved far more people into poverty than into jobs with salaries and benefits to support families. Citing research from Arloc Sherman of the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, Edelman writes that people shoved into deep poverty is on a disconcertingly upward trend. “Sherman calculated that deep poverty among children rose nearly 75 percent from 1995 to 2005, and it had risen another 30 percent by 2010.

The biggest reason for the nation’s growing pool of poverty is the demise of welfare, Edelman concludes. “The 1996 law ended the legal right to cash assistance and imposed a five-year lifetime limit on federally financed help to any given family,” Edelman notes in his book.

The OWS demonstrations may have even prodded liberals to pay a bit more attention to the plight of the nation’s less vulnerable, instead of constantly conducting lofty, mind-numbing, and tiresome discussions about how the Constitution should be interpreted by judges.

Indeed one constitutional scholar has for years written and spoken extensively on the Constitution’s underpinning for providing economic security for all people.

In a piece for The New York Times, William E. Forbath, associate dean for research and a distinguished professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, wrote that there is a “venerable rival to constitutional laissez-faire: a rich distributive tradition of constitutional law and politics, rooted in the framers’ generation.” Forbath noted that James Madison in writing a draft of the Virginia Constitution included “rights to free education and public land.”

In an article for the book, The Constitution in 2020, Forbath details the “historical heft” of a century-long effort “to make good on the constitutional justice of livelihoods and social and economic rights ….”

On the anniversary of the birth of OWS, it is fitting to note that the U.S. Constitution is not just about promoting and protecting civil liberties; it’s one that should promote and protect economic justice.

But collectivists have let slip by decades of right-wing promotion of the ideas that the nation’s superrich are “job creators” and the less we tax them and regulate their business dealings the better off the entire country will be. The momentum of OWS, which has waned, will likely not bring about economic policies that truly address growing poverty and promote economic justice, but much needed discussion and debate have been launched, and economic inequality is not going away anytime soon.

[image via Paul Stein]