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Occupy Obama on Election Day

The Occupy movement has a very big dog in this year’s presidential fight. Election Day will determine the size of the movement’s legacy, and very possibly its future too.

There’s no doubt that the Occupy movement has already made history. It was obvious a year ago. Wealth and income inequality had come out of the closet. So had the long-term economic decline of the middle as well as lower classes.  For the first time since the 1930s, these were front-page issues in the mass media and common topics of conversation across the political spectrum. It was an extraordinary achievement.

And Barack Obama knew it. So did his political strategists. With the election just a year off, they decided to hitch their campaign wagon to Occupy’s rising star. So Obama went to the proverbial heartland of the nation and proclaimed there’s nothing the matter with Kansas that a good dose of Occupy-style progressivism won’t cure.

He went to Ossawatamie, Kansas, to give his first major speech of the campaign because that’s where Theodore Roosevelt, the first progressive president, gave his greatest speech in praise of progressivism.

Quoting TR, Obama proclaimed “the fundamental rule of our national life … We shall go up or down together.” Once upon a time, that was a Republican doctrine. Now the right believes that we are “better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.  I am here to say they are wrong,” Obama declared. “We’re greater together than we are on our own. … Our success has never just been about survival of the fittest. It’s about building a nation where we’re all better off. We pull together.”

The “fundamental issue” now, the president continued, is that “gaping inequality gives lie to the promise that's at the very heart of America: that this is a place where you can make it if you try.” Not “might” make it, but “can” make it. That was a startling advance beyond anything that Teddy Roosevelt, or his distant cousin Franklin D., ever promised.

Occupiers didn’t take much notice, because they knew that this rhetoric was contradicted by so much of Obama’s economic policymaking. Yes, absolutely, his policies continue to give immense unfair advantages to the rich. The gap between rhetoric and reality has prompted many supporters of the Occupy movement to give up on Obama. And the lack of any real change in policies has prompted many Occupiers to give up on the movement.

That’s a damn shame, because in nearly a half-century of watching politics I’ve learned two things:  First, substantial policy change is a painfully slow process. You can’t expect to see the changes you work for happen in a year, or four years, or maybe even a decade. If you want to make those changes, you’ve got to play the long game. That means tolerating a lot of frustration along the way.

Second, policies don’t change until a lot of people change the way they think. And people don’t change their thinking until the language of public conversation changes. Words are the tools we use to think with. The greatest achievement of the Occupy movement was to change the words that the American public thinks with.

But the change probably would not have stuck if Barack Obama and his campaign strategists had not bet on it as their winning ticket and adopted it as their own. OK, they co-opted it. Nevertheless, Obama’s words made the Occupy movement respectable in mass media editorial rooms, and from there they became respectable in the political center as well as on the left. 

Again, it’s absolutely and disappointingly true that Obama backed away from the Occupy movement, not only in his policies but in his rhetoric. As the campaign when on, he steadily softened his Ossawatamie progressivism. He voiced the full-blown progressive message less and less often. I imagine he was following the advice of pollsters who told him to move toward the center.

Still, he did stick with at least the basic outlines of the narrative he started with, the one inspired by the Occupy movement.  He continued to demand higher taxes from the rich. Even though the increase he calls for is pitifully small, the very fact of demanding any tax hike at all from the one percent is a symbolic attack on their privilege. It keeps the outrage of their immense wealth and influence in the spotlight. We haven’t seen that from a Democratic president since FDR.

Now the Obama campaign is putting out the word that the president will keep demanding higher taxes on the rich even after the election, as we approach the “fiscal cliff.” They think those words are winners with the public. Regardless of how the policy duel works out, that change in language is a huge win for Occupy.

Moreover, Obama continues to frame higher taxes for the rich as part of a program of wealth redistribution for the common good. He says we need less money for the military and more money redirected to meeting human needs, things like better schools, new clean energy technologies, and affordable health care for all.

It’s a bare bones messages, disappointingly thin by Occupy standards. But it’s more progressive than anything we’ve heard from Democrats in many years. Occupy gets a huge share of the credit for that.

As Election Day looms, this legacy of Occupy is teetering on the precipice. If Romney wins the presidency, it will be framed by the media -- and accepted by most of the public -- as America’s rejection of Obama’s narrative. Occupiers might be energized by having Romney as a target. But their words will be largely ignored, written off as irrelevant, hollow, meaningless.

The movement will be more marginalized, more vulnerable to repression, and thus less effective than ever.  A Romney victory will put a huge nail, very possibly the final one, in the coffin of the Occupy movement.

If Obama wins, the media and most of the public will see it as a victory for the progressive vision Obama laid out in his acceptance speech:  “Our destines are bound together … We travel together. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up.”   

Yes, absolutely, a second-term Obama will disappoint us with policies that fall far short of this rhetoric. But the words, first inspired by the Occupy movement, will be winners. They will change the language that most Americans use to talk and think about actual policies. Politicians across the country will recognize that. The political atmosphere will be altered, perhaps not dramatically, but significantly.

There’s no reason to expect any dramatic transformation in the next four years. We’re in the middle of another round in a long, long struggle, one that’s been going on for centuries now. If Obama wins, the Occupy movement has a much improved chance to win some points in this round. It will be able to say, “OK, Democrats. Put the money where your mouth is.” And those words will have a legitimate place in the nation’s political debate.

If Romney wins, those words will simply disappear into empty political space.

Real change begins when enough people believe that movements for change have some chance to succeed. The first step in the process is to change the language. We can help that first step along -- and help revive the Occupy movement as a serious political force -- by helping Obama and other Democrats win this election.

That’s one more big reason, along with all the others that highly respected progressives have named, for voting Democratic this year.

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