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Occupy Wall Street: The Enthusiasm Gap

The latest polls indicate that approximately 75 percent of Americans agree with the goals of Occupy Wall Street. Nonetheless, only 29 percent consider themselves supporters of OWS. What accounts for this enthusiasm gap?

The October Time magazine poll asked respondents if they agreed with the positions advocated by Occupy Wall Street and discovered extraordinary concurrence. 86 percent agreed that, "Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence in Washington." 79 percent agreed that, "The gap between rich and poor in the United States has grown too large." 71 percent agreed with “"Executives of financial institutions responsible for the financial meltdown in 2008 should be prosecuted.” And 68 percent agreed that, “The rich should pay more taxes.” Nonetheless, there remains a 45-50 percent enthusiasm gap, because the same voters who express these strong positive sentiments say they don’t support OWS.

Perhaps these voters don’t know enough about OWS. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that 59 percent of respondents felt they didn’t know enough to approve or disapprove of the movement’s goals.

It would be easier to accept the excuse “we don’t know enough” if there was not a pattern of passivity. When we consider the past decade we can find many examples where average Americans should have taken action but didn’t. In 2000, George W. Bush stole the presidency; many voters were outraged but few of them took to the streets in protest. On September 11, 2001, the US was attacked by terrorists; there were legitimate concerns that the Bush Administration had been asleep at the wheel yet once again Americans were passive observers. The terrorists were traced to Afghanistan and the US launched an attack; in December of 2001 most of the terrorists escaped from Afghanistan into Pakistan – it was a glaring example of White House ineptitude but most citizens were quiet. Faced with failure in Afghanistan, the Bush Administration turned its attention to Iraq and, on March 20, 2003, launched an invasion; this time there were more protestors but the bulk of Americans stayed at home. Over the next several years there were glaring examples of Presidential incompetence – for example, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – but for the most part voters were quiet. Then the housing bubble burst and, in late September 2008, Wall Street came close to melting down; Americans were stunned and depressed, but few took to the streets. Since the turn of the century, American voters, the 99 percent, have had a lot to be angry about, but have been passive.

Historians contrast this last lost decade with World War II era America where average citizens, the 99 percent rose up, built the weapons, and fought the fights that defeated the Axis powers. What’s happened to us?


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Perhaps American workers don’t have the time. It’s a tough economy and many work two jobs. For the 99 percent it’s a grueling daily chore making ends meet. Perhaps they don’t have the energy to get involved with OWS.

Perhaps they don’t get it. Many observers believe Americans no longer invest in our children and, as a result, many have poor schools, teachers, and study habits. We’ve raised several generations of “non intellectuals.” The average American spends 2.7 hours per day watching TV and only a few minutes reading. Perhaps the 99 percent don’t understand what all the fuss is about.

Perhaps they’ve checked out. The Pew Survey of Religious Affiliation found that 26.3 percent of respondents were evangelical Protestants; this does not include Black and Catholic evangelicals and many observers believe the true number is closer to 40 percent. A recent Pew Research Poll found that 41 percent of respondents believe that Jesus Christ will return to earth by 2050 – when the rapture will occur. Perhaps the 99 percent are not involved because they are preparing to shuffle off this mortal coil.

Perhaps they’re severely damaged. The official US rate for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is 7.8 percent – with a higher incidence among veterans. However this does not include survivors of violence against women and children. The American Psychological Association reports, “Nearly one in every three adult women experiences at least one physical assault by a partner during adulthood” – four million US women are assaulted each year. Approximately one third of US children under 18 experience abuse during their childhood – in 2009 6 million children were reported as abused. And then there are the adults that have been economically abused – laid off because their job was moved overseas or fired and rehired as a temp with no benefits. It’s reasonable to assume that a majority of Americans – a huge segment of the 99 percent – suffer from PTSD. As a consequence they are depressed, hopeless, and numb. Perhaps these American agree with OWS but can’t get it together to participate.

The enthusiasm gap is a result of a combination of these factors. The challenge for Occupy Wall Street is to find new ways to engage members of the 99 percent who agree with OWS objectives, but are too tired or numb to participate.

Bob Burnett

Bob Burnett

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley Quaker, activist, and writer.  In other life he was a Silicon Valley executive — co-founder of Cisco Systems.

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