This quote has been used quite a bit lately:
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
- Mahatma Gandhi
If you believe this quote, you might tempted to think that the Occupy Wall St. movement is on the verge of a major victory. In a little over three weeks, they were initially ignored by even the media, then derided as stinkin’, unemployed hippies with iPads, and now being fought against by Republicans, the media and the police. If they did all that in a little over three weeks, then the whole system should be fixed by Halloween.
If only that were the case.
No, the fight part of that quote has only just begun. And the biggest fight will likely come from within the movement itself, as it tries to coalesce competing interests and goals into a increasingly more focused action. And yet, the lack of single goal focus is what will keep this group growing.
How can a lack of focus help? Because it makes the movement more inclusive. What killed the original Tea Party was the push to focus on specifics. Those specifics were co-opted by Republicans as campaign slogans, none of which they could or intended to deliver on. Instead, they made more promises, and made sure that nothing they did was to the detriment of their benefactors. What Republicans didn’t count on was the strength of the Tea Party once they got into office. And now, a group with less than 30% approval rating from the average American has Congress by the short and curlies.
But the apparent lack of focus of Occupy Wall St. is what frustrates both sides of the political spectrum. They can’t control this group. Much like the Tea Party representatives that were voted in, Occupy Wall St. isn’t singing from the traditional hymnal. Their efforts to allow all viewpoints to be represented means that no individual group can control the movement – not the left, the right, not anarchists or corporatists. Each of these groups can speak, can espouse their views, but none can move it. Unions are trying, Dems are trying, even right-wing “End the Fed” groups are trying, and none has succeeded.
So, if they have no focus, what can they possibly accomplish? A whole lot as it turns out. Unlike the Tea Party, this movement has the potential to be completely non-partisan. But they will have to resist the pull to one ideology or another. They strength of this movement is the simplicity of it’s message – get corporate money out of politics. Everything else is a side issue. That one message is their strength. They don’t need a plan – that will come. It is amazing that people are demanding answers less than a month after the movement started when it has taken decades to get to the mess we’re currently in.
The minute that this movement becomes partisan in any one direction or another, it will fail. Right now, the movement has support because it hits home with a vast cross-section of Americans. These folks are either unemployed, underemployed, underwater on a mortgage, have lost a home, buried under medical bills, facing homelessness or some other hardship that can be traced fairly quickly back to a Wall St. firm that has profited from the situation, even after being bailed out by those same taxpayers they are now foreclosing on. And all the while, they have paid themselves increasingly higher salaries, while those same taxpayers have seen a drop in income.
The vast majority can stand behind correcting these inequalities. The message isn’t about specific ratios or putting limits on pay. It’s about the fact that while thousands are laid off, CEOs are seeing double-digit percentage increases in their pay. Americans inherently believe in fairness – and that’s not the same as equality. As a rule, Americans believe in reward based on merit, that if you work hard and follow the rules, things get better for you. And that’s truly how capitalism is supposed to work. This isn’t about doing away with capitalism, even if some believe that is the solution. What this movement really is looking for is restoring the fairness to the system, restoring the ability to prosper by working hard. And that is what most people want. They don’t want a handout, or even a hand up. They just don’t want to be shoved back down. They want to be able to prosper based on the merit of what they do. They don’t understand why CEOs are making 300-400 times the amount that the average front-line employee does. And they certainly don’t want to pay for the gambling these companies engage in, particularly when they lose – and still see those who were at the helm of the company be rewarded for failure.
So how does this relate to getting money out of politics? Simply, these companies, these individuals are running the table. They have the financial resources to swing elections, to buy legislation, and to mold the system to not only perpetuate their influence, but increase it. They created the inequity and by doing so have given themselves the power to increase it at will.
So, given the distributed nature of this movement, what can they possibly achieve? Well, the first step was raising awareness. The issue is now getting into the average American home, with protests across the country being covered not just on a national level, but on a local level. By keeping the protests peaceful, they gather support. Every pepper-spraying, baton beating or aggressive move by the police only adds to their case.
But now that they are getting attention, the next step is to propose additional forms of protest that actually have an effect. One of these is the proposed “Move Your Money” protest. The idea is to get people to move their money from big banks to local institutions like credit unions.
This type of protest has been suggested before with regard to oil companies, but always falls flat. The main reason is that no matter how much they wish to protest, people need to fuel their cars, and trucks need to move product. It has little effect. But the Move Your Money protest has a bit more bite. It’s not about not using a financial institution. It’s about changing to a different one.
How will this affect the big banks? By dramatically killing their liquidity, if enough people participate. Yes, it has the potential to dramatically affect the banking industry, as they will have diminished assets with which to operate. And as highly leveraged as many of them are, it could take a few down. But the average American will still have their money – just in a local institution.
Could this collapse the banking system? Possibly. One thing is for sure – there will not be any stomach for another bailout, especially with banks raising fees just for using debit cards. Will it send a message? Incredibly.
The reality is, most folks won’t do it. But it wouldn’t take everyone. It would take a sufficient percentage. More likely, however, is that there would be some type of intervention to avoid a run on the banks. This already happened last week in St. Louis, where a group of dissatisfied customers tried to enter a Bank of America to close their accounts, and were informed they could only do so online – and were not allowed to enter the bank.
This type of protest is what Occupy Wall St. has the power to mobilize by not being more organized, by not moving to one political arena or another. They have gained a voice and a pulpit. They now need to flex the muscle a bit to move the needle.