Let’s say the government, under immense pressure from the National Criminals Lobby, decided to legalize robbery.
The next day, dozens of neighbors showed up at your door—fully within their new legal rights—to cart away your laptop, TV and other prized possessions. At whom would you direct your anger: the neighbors for taking advantage of the law, or the government for passing it?
This is the defining question raised by the “Occupy” movement, which has directed a disproportionate amount of its attention towards the people who take advantage of bad laws rather than at the corrupt politicians who are responsible for them.
If you have any doubts about this, just visit the official website of Occupy Wall Street. Reading the official “mission” gave me goose bumps: “The one thing we all have in common is that we are the 99 percent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 percent.” Replace the “99 percent” with “white people” and the “1 percent” with any minority racial or ethnic group, and you should be able to see how scary this can get; why are generalizations any more acceptable when they deal with class than when they deal with race or religion?
Representatives of the movement often talk about their disgust toward corporate executives who accepted taxpayer bailouts, or about the top 1 percent that isn’t paying their fair share in taxes. But this is counter-logical; these decisions aren’t made by Wall Street fat cats but rather by Washington bureaucrats. Why occupy Wall Street and not, say, Pennsylvania Avenue?
What is most frustrating about Occupy’s feeble attempt at class warfare is that the movement actually began with a single goal and with greedy politicians—not entire tax brackets—in its crosshairs. In fact, an early ad for “Occupy Wall Street,” released by a Canadian website in July, read as follows: “We demand that Barack Obama ordain a Presidential commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.”
Now there’s something we can all agree on. It is of course true that certain elements of the 1 percent have used corporate donations to convince politicians to support misguided or, at times, absurdly neoliberal positions (like Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan). Similarly, traditionally opposing forces—say, teachers unions—have used political donations to put their interests before reasonable policy (like merit pay for teachers).
But blaming political donors—who are, like it or not, behaving legally—for this phenomenon completely misses the point.
Better to focus on the politicians. The Economist summed things up well this week by saying that “as the battle for campaign dollars heats up, neither side dares... risk the ire of its donors by appearing to compromise.” Even small donors give money to causes they feel strongly about, which has the tendency to drown out moderate voices. And in the era of billion dollar campaigns, focusing on anything other than money is political suicide.
Opponents of campaign finance reform like to talk about the their constitutional right to free speech. I don’t remember the Constitution saying anything about people with the most money dictating the fate of political candidates (or free speech including money). And enacting a sustainable public financing scheme for elections is possibly the only conceivable policy that would satisfy the interests of both the Tea Party (who are mostly furious about out-of-control government spending, which is the result of the dominance of special interests) and Occupy Wall Street (who are peeved about policy favorable to corporate interests—you can guess where that comes from).
Duke, having one of the more balanced political populations of top-tier college campuses, is a perfect candidate to lead the Occupy movement in a more productive direction.
To date, Occupy Duke has focused on economic inequality rather than on its primary cause, which is the disparity between a moderate voter base and radical, uncompromising politicians. So a petition to the folks camping out on the Chapel Quad: Drop the generalizations about 1 percent and 99 percent and attack the problems you are addressing at their core; that is, a broken political structure.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
There’s never been a more urgent time to focus on this issue. In the wake of a catastrophic Supreme Court ruling that essentially declared campaign finance legislation unconstitutional, efforts to change the way elections work in America are on life support. But earlier this month—in an unprecedented display of logic—nine Senate Democrats introduced a proposal for a constitutional amendment (the only thing that can override a Supreme Court ruling) that would give Congress the power to regulate campaign financing. It didn’t make headlines—“campaign finance reform” doesn’t sound as sexy as “greedy rich people are destroying our society.”
But combined with the attention grabbing nature of the “Occupy” movement, this new push could represent the start of the change we’ve been looking for.
Occupiers, take notice.
Jeremy Ruch is a Trinity junior and is currently studying abroad in Brazil, South Africa and Vietnam. His column runs every other Monday.