As any professional historian will insist, historical perspectives do not suffice to predict the future, nor are they sufficient to understand the present. To begin with, every age and every society has important peculiarities, and, moreover, caprice or chance have a way of foiling what may appear to be inexorable trajectories of events. At the same time, historical perspectives offer valuable guideposts in assessing current affairs, especially when the affairs under assessment share parallels with well-studied historical experience. The emerging, worldwide campaign to resist the shape of contemporary capitalism is a case in point. Put broadly, a wide swathe of society is now willing to question the legitimacy of the economic and political order, on account of what appears to be rampant injustice. Western nations accumulated plenty of experience with this type of confrontation throughout the era of the industrial revolution, before the modern welfare state largely dissolved the tension. The tension has clearly returned, but it is not clear what its consequences might be. The current piece eyes the development of political resistance in the US two months into the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, and on the heels of this week's off-year local elections. As we shall see, historical perspectives will give us some idea where the movement might be heading.
OWS and the Rejection of Mainstream Politics
As we detailed recently in this forum, the OWS movement is grounded in a rejection of the Democratic Party, and appears capable of resisting co-optation into it. The persistence of the OWS demonstrators and of sympathizers around the country (Oakland and Atlanta deserving top mention) is certainly helping to escalate anti-establishment political sentiment. Evidence of the trend is not hard to find. Thus, approval ratings of congress have fallen to an astonishing 9 percent, far and away an all-time low, and President Obama is attracting pitiful numbers of people to attend his public appearances. Meanwhile, national polling this week registered an eye-opening 76 percent acceptance rate for the underlying OWS perspective, namely:
“The current economic structure of the country is out of balance, and favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country. America needs to reduce the power of major banks and corporations and demand greater accountability and transparency. The government should not provide financial aid to corporations and should not provide tax breaks to the rich "notion that the economy is seriously out of balance.”
Fully 60 percent said they strongly agreed with this perspective.
Local Elections and the Political Mood
Americans therefore went to the polls for off-year, local elections this week in the most anti-establishment mood in decades. For two reasons, off-year elections are more suited to the expression of populist sentiments in the US than are presidential-year or mid-term elections. First, the elections feature only a few stray races for national office, so the balance of power between the two major parties is not at stake, so local issues get plenty of attention (and local candidates often run for office without any party affiliation). Second, the off-year elections highlight popularly charged issues where the necessity of an election is generated from below, like recalls and referendums. The 2011 elections included many such contests, and the results were encouraging.
First and foremost, voters in Ohio resoundingly rejected Governor John Kasich's public union-busting law. “I have covered politics for a long time, and rarely have I seen a governor so chastened,” noted John Nichols of The Nation, regarding Kasich's concession speech on the decision. The vote was 61 to 39 to repeal Kasich's law, a landslide that will give extra momentum to protect organized labor from Republican legislative assaults elsewhere–particularly in neighboring Wisconsin, which is about to begin a grassroots effort to recall Governor Scott Walker, a Kasich twin.
Referendums and recalls in other states mirrored the picture in Ohio, with voters rejecting what they clearly see as right-wing overreach in many dimensions of the economic and political order. Thus, Mississippi voters rejected an extremely stern anti-abortion and anti-birth control initiative, Maine repealed Republican-installed regulations designed to hold down voter turnout, and Arizona recalled Tea Party icon and State Senate President Russell Pearce (Pearce was behind an openly discriminatory campaign to harass Latin American immigrants). In a similar vein, the Democrats swept the elections in traditionally conservative Kentucky, won key races in West Virginia, and unexpectedly held control of the Iowa State Senate.
Reaction at the Top?
As insulated as America's political leaders may be from popular opinion, the scale of discontent ought to register with them at some point. Hints of adjustment are appearing. To take just one example, President Obama has finally taken ownership of the decision to permit or reject the Keystone XL pipeline project (which would bring oil from Canadian tar sands to refineries in the Houston area, at potentially enormous environmental cost). Until a week ago, Obama seemed content to leave review of this project to the State Department, which is clearly under the influence of energy sector lobbyists in this case. Obama then suddenly declared he would weigh up the decision himself, and today (November 10th) came word that the State Department would have to conduct their review a second time, with the understanding that input from energy lobbyists would not be welcome. It seems, therefore, that Obama will indeed do the right thing and reject the pipeline, a decision for which the OWS movement writ large (including allied environmental groups) will be able to take credit.
The incremental successes of the local elections, Obama's reconsideration of the Keystone XL pipeline, and other developments stemming from OWS are heartening. At the same time, however, the inadequacy of the popular response to the challenges of the present day is striking. As we detailed in our previous piece in this forum, evidence of economic stress and political inaction or malfeasance continues to gush forth. Thus, to take just a few of many possible examples, the Census Department recently reported a record gap in wealth between the young (households headed by someone under 35) and the old (households headed by someone over age 65). The ratio is now an incredible 46:1 in favor of the elderly, which is double the figure from 2005, and almost five times the level of 25 years ago. Next, we heard this week that almost 29 percent of homeowners are currently underwater on their mortgages, another all-time record, and an ominous signal for the housing market and the broader economy. We also recently learned that Bank of America stealthily (without informing the FDIC) transferred a large cache of imperiled mortgage-related derivatives into an FDIC-insured (therefore taxpayer-insured) division of the bank, which amounts to yet another major bailout of Wall St. in the making. Furthermore, we learned in the last week that heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions jumped by an astonishing 6 percent in 2010, and exceeding worst-case scenarios from just a few years ago. Not coincidentally, the International Energy Agency is warning that current power production buildout programs will lock the world into irreversible climate change within a few years.
In other words, the climate crisis, the economic crisis, and accompanying injustice are progressing apace. As economist Paul Krugman recently asked: “Can anyone seriously deny that our political system is being warped by the influence of big money, and that the warping is getting worse as the wealth of a few grows ever larger? Some pundits are still trying to dismiss concerns about rising inequality as somehow foolish. But the truth is that the whole nature of our society is at stake.”
Why, then, is there not more outrage? Why isn't the OWS movement much bigger?
The Limits of Uprising
The scholarly literature addressing the docility of populations suffering injustice is enormous, of course, and no attempt will be made here to identify the most prescient insights apropos present-day America. We can, however, look for guidance to the great triad of conceptions explaining the political radicalization of European populations over the first 150 years or so of the industrial age, namely, DeTocqueville's thesis of rising expectations, Marx's notion of class consciousness, and Durkheim's positing of anomie (disorientation or uprootedness, generally connected with the rapid migration of populations from rural to urban settings). In this framework, the US does not look at all ripe for radicalization. Class consciousness and indignation over inequality and entrenched social immobility is definitely spreading, it is true (by the way, according to the OECD — among others — social mobility is lower in the US than in Canada and a host of European countries). But for a long time now expectations have certainly not been rising — optimism regarding the future is now at multi-decade lows. Nor is Durkheim's anomie prevalent. Youth are not struggling with disorientation akin to that experienced during the industrial revolution's shift from rural to urban settings and norms. Quite the opposite, perhaps: the estimated the number of 18-34 year-olds now living at home with their parents is 1.5 million above the historical trend line.
Plenty of other insights cast doubt on the US population's potential for radicalization. Thus, history shows all too well that class consciousness does not necessarily play out according to Karl Marx's script. Class solidarity is elusive, for many reasons, some of which researchers are still uncovering. The National Bureau of Economic Research recently released findings to the effect that poorer than average Americans oppose measures to redistribute wealth downwards, primarily out of fear that those below them, the poorest, will be lifted up to their level. Ignorance or myopia regarding economic affairs surfaces in many other contexts, always stalling efforts at mass political mobilization. For example, studies of voting patterns have identified much more popular resistance to inflation than to unemployment. People just tend to despise higher prices, even if their wages are rising in concert. And a hefty slice of the population — up to a quarter, concludes the most prominent scholar on the topic — will cling to a system of conservative, authoritarian values no matter how openly the political order discredits itself.
Few signs suggest social upheaval will reach the level currently obtaining in Greece, therefore, let alone attain a full-blown radicalization. All the same, the OWS movement may somehow trigger far-reaching reforms. The Populist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is a provocative precedent. It grew from below, it propelled Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Taft to break up business trusts, and it catalyzed women's suffrage, child labor controls, the minimum wage, and more. Perhaps the real OWS drama is yet to unfold?