Occupy Wall Street Has Seized Control of This Year’s Political Debate

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In a statement following the Senate’s rejection of the proposed Buffett Rule to impose a 30 percent minimum tax rate on those making more than $1 million a year, President Obama accused Senate Republicans of “choosing once again to protect tax breaks for the wealthiest few Americans at the expense of the middle class.”

And in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine this week, the president openly embraced Occupy Wall Street as “just one vivid expression of a broader anxiety.”

These remarks illustrate an important, but largely unrecognized, point about why and how the Obama campaign has retooled its message and strategy. Put simply, President Obama has effectively made class warfare the central organizing strategy of his reelection campaign.

Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear that Occupy Wall Street (OWS)—while less visibly active in recent months following clashes with the police, infighting, and eviction from its flagship encampment in New York’s Zuccotti Park last November—is nonetheless seizing control of the political debate in America this election year.

OWS already has had a clear and demonstrable impact on both the Obama and Romney campaigns–arguably becoming the most important outside influence so far in this year’s election campaign dialogue.

President Obama and the Democrats have been increasingly echoing the central themes that OWS introduced last fall—emphasizing unfairness in American society, income inequality, and the need to redistribute wealth.  Mitt Romney–who has struggled throughout this campaign on how to address questions surrounding Bain Capital, his overall wealth, the tax rates he pays, and what role Wall Street and business should play in promoting economic growth and job development–sought to tap into OWS themes at a rally in New Hampshire on April 24 with a speech centered around  “the unfairness of America today.”

Moreover, the themes and rhetoric that Occupy Wall Street introduced have captured enough attention to go beyond the political hemisphere, to influence Wall Street itself.  Nowhere was this clearer than last week when for the first time in Wall Street history, Citigroup shareholders united in opposition to a proposed $15 million pay package for its chief executive, Vikram S. Pandit.  The shareholder vote, which comes amid a rising national debate over income inequality, suggests that anger over pay for chief executives has spread from Occupy Wall Street to influence actual behavior on Wall Street as well.

Occupy Wall Street’s rhetorical dominance of Democratic messaging fulfills one of the clear goals its followers articulated last October, when my firm, Douglas E. Schoen, LLC, conducted a survey of OWS protesters.  At that time, a clear plurality (35 percent) of the Occupy Wall Street protesters interviewed said their top goal was for Occupy Wall Street to move the Democratic Party distinctly and boldly left.

They have largely succeeded.

President Obama has retooled his campaign message and has acted as an effective amplifier and advocate of Occupy Wall Street’s core messages since the beginning of 2012. His State of the Union address focused on the need for fairness and equality in American society and “an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

The president has also emphasized time and again the need to redistribute wealth and income, and the need to protect all Americans from rapacious oil companies, banks, insurance companies, and the wealthy in general. Calling economic fairness “the defining issue of our time,” he went on to proclaim,  “Now, you can call this class warfare all you want … But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.”

A new follow-up survey conducted recently by my firm on Occupy Wall Street goals and objectives shows that the movement has new and bolder aspirations to use the rhetorical influence it has already won to fundamentally alter government policy and change American politics and society in ways that were previously unimaginable.

Arielle Alter Confino, a senior researcher at my polling firm, conducted a follow-up survey on the attitudes of Occupy Wall Street’s supporters. She and two associates interviewed a total of 200 protesters in Zuccotti Park and at OWS’ new Union Square location between March 28 and April 2.

The survey results show that OWS believes it has vocalized frustrations shared by a broad mass of the American people (65 percent), and is now controlling the national dialogue (77 percent) and influencing both President Obama and the Democratic Party (54 percent)—at least in terms of strategy and rhetoric.

Moreover, we found that the view that the movement has become quiescent is fundamentally wrong.

If anything, OWS has become even more radical since our October poll—when respondents said they were ready and willing to use civil disobedience (98 percent) and violence (31 percent) as a means of achieving OWS’ agenda.

The results from our latest survey show that the activists we interviewed in October were not only candid but accurate about their tactics and goals. Indeed, a detailed look at the findings suggests that the OWS protesters are bolder and more aggressive than ever—with close to two-thirds (63 percent) saying they have already engaged in civil disobedience,  and more than 10 percent (13 percent) saying they have already engaged in violence in support of their goals.

An examination of the survey data shows clearly that the activists we interviewed have an ambitious and bold agenda of change that they are working to see implemented through their next phase of activity.

They seek nothing less than a fundamental overhaul of American society, going well beyond the policy prescriptions of many European and Scandinavian social democratic societies.

The activists we interviewed made it clear that they oppose American-style capitalism  (53 percent), and believe in massive redistribution of wealth (71 percent), dramatically higher taxes (85 percent),  and greater government regulation and control over the economy (79 percent).

Seventy-nine percent say that government has a moral responsibility to guarantee health care, a college education, and a secure retirement for all, no matter what the cost—a 14-point increase from 65 percent who gave this answer in our fall survey.

Three-quarters (74 percent) would like to see our health-care system replaced by a government-run single-payer system.

As the current survey results indicate, the movement plans to go beyond its achievement of controlling the national political dialogue and influencing both President Obama and the Democrats to an even more ambitious agenda of tangible social and political change.

In the course of doing the interviews, my firm received a number of comments from protesters who were candid about wanting to more than just influencing the electoral outcome of the 2012 election.

As one Occupy Wall Street protester, a graduate student in her mid-twenties explained, the OWS efforts in 2012 were about the “need to fundamentally revolutionize American society [and transform it] into a cooperative—run by and for the ‘We the 99 percent.’”

Another protester–a seasoned veteran of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) whose calls for radicalism and direct action echoed the student protestors of the 1960s– put it bluntly:  “The working class must unite with direct action to seize power back from the usurious banks and the corporations who run our state!”

And now, the movement is in the process of trying to achieve these goals.

Occupy Wall Street is now gearing up to reengage in 2012 with an aggressive program of protests designed to mobilize progressives with a reinvigorated effort to promote radical redistribution of wealth, greater government regulation and control of the private sector, and a massive new set of social and economic initiatives to guarantee government-subsidized health care, education, and retirement security for all–no matter what the cost.

Every week for the last two months, protesters in New York City have trained new members in various protest tactics focused on “redressing the imbalances and injustices in American society,” as one protester put it.

These weeks of training are building up to May Day on May 1, when Occupy is calling on the 99 percent to hold a general strike across the United States.

Occupy Wall Street is now organizing a powerful block of collective progressive interests—collaborating if not partnering with other leftist groups including but not limited to labor unions, environmentalists, and independent community organizers.  On Tuesday April 24, thousands of people risked arrest by attempting to shut down the Wells Fargo annual shareholder meeting in San Francisco—demanding Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf and other executives address the concerns of the 99 percent.

How much success the movement has actually implementing this sweeping agenda remains to be seen.

Make no mistake, Occupy Wall Street’s impact has already been considerable, as the movement remains a clear force to be reckoned for the upcoming general election campaign, and most likely, the foreseeable future.