Change the Public’s Thinking

By Michael Kazin

The protests that began on Wall Street and are spreading to dozens of American cities have been a long time in coming. Since the 1970s, economic inequality in the United States has increased, as unions declined and changes in the tax code benefited the rich. Even Alan Greenspan recognized, in 2005, “this is not the type of thing which a democratic society – a capitalist democratic society – can really accept without addressing.”

However, until now, despite the recession, progressive activists have been drowned out by Tea Party blather about the dangers of “a socialist, secular state.” By finally making the gulf between the wealthiest class and everyone else impossible to ignore, the occupiers, in their tenacious rage, are doing a great service to our country.

Of course, as with any new insurgency, this one will have to learn and adapt if it hopes to grow into a durable mass movement. Clever tactics must get joined to intelligent strategies, leaders will have to emerge from a leaderless throng, and protesters who now heap contempt on both political parties will have to decide if they really think the nation would be no worse off if the Republican Party controlled the White House and both houses of Congress in 2013. They will also need a name more resonant and pleasing to repeat than “Occupiers.”

Yet even if the insurgents fail to create their own institutions or revive struggling unions, they can still accomplish something grand. Leftists in U.S. history have seldom mounted a serious challenge to those who held power in either the government or the economy. But they have often helped to transform the common sense of society – how Americans understand what is just and what is unjust in the conduct of public affairs. If protesters manage to direct the anger of a portion of the “99 percent” toward the freewheeling free-marketeers who got us into this mess, they will have done their job.