Matt Stoller writes: It’s been a little over a month since this bolt of political lightning known as Occupy Wall Street jolted through the political establishment. It’s time to assess just what Occupy Wall Street has gotten done. That it has accomplished a great deal is beyond dispute. Franklin Foer in the New Republic and John Nichols in the Nation have both noted that Occupy Wall Street profoundly challenged President Obama and the Republicans. But what an odd challenge. A few thousand people camped out in parks around the country? Really?
Yet this challenge has completely changed the dominant theme in Washington. Less than a year ago, JP Morgan’s Bill Daley was the glad-handling centrist du jour, praised by everyone from Howard Dean to Bob Reich. The “austerity class,” as Ari Berman so nicely put it, was in control of the debate, with the Tea Party waiting in the wings ready to slash and burn.
Fast forward to October 2011. Obama is increasingly taking on a populist tone and using executive orders to attempt stimulating the economy, with Democrats smacking around Mitt Romney for encouraging foreclosures as a way to clear the market (a policy Obama administration officials like HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan agree with. The centrists are losing, perhaps not power, but certainly the debate. Third Way, the political brain behind this centrist White House and Senate, is one of the few groups warning Democrats away from Occupy Wall Street, but few are listening.
There’s a reason; the themes put out by the protesters are overwhelmingly popular. The poll numbers are out. If Occupy Wall Street were a national candidate for president, it would be blowing away every other candidate on the stage, including Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Fifty-four percent of Americans agree with the protesters, versus 44 percent who think President Obama is doing a good job. Seventy-three percent of Americans want prosecutions for Wall Street executives for the crisis. Seventy-nine percent think the gap between rich and poor is too large. Eighty-six percent say Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much power in Washington. Sixty-eight percent think the rich should pay more in taxes. Twenty-five percent of the public considers itself upset, 45 percent is concerned about the country and 25 percent is downright angry.
That these themes are dominating establishment debates now is somewhat bizarre. It’s not as if people didn’t hate banks in 2008, 2009 or 2010. And when you think about it, camping out in various cities isn’t a particularly radical act, in and of itself. Occupy Wall Street can’t project political power, at least not in any traditional sense. It can’t make decisions about how to relate to the police, or politicians. It is ideologically incoherent. It can’t even stop drum circles from drumming at night, because drummers don’t recognize the legitimacy of the general assemblies that try to cut deals with the neighborhood. There are increasing reports of medical and safety problems in parks around the country. One person at the protests told me the World War I disease called trenchfoot is making an appearance due to damp conditions. The protests are a ball of raw energy, with one basic message: The 1 percent on Wall Street have taken advantage of the 99 percent of the rest of us.