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Occupy unrest

Ryan Williams | Monday, November 21, 2011

Over the past two months, the Occupy Wall Street movement that began as a protest against the disproportionate influence wielded by the wealthiest members of society has garnered international attention and spawned hundreds of solidarity protests across the country and around the world. Recently however, the movement has faced a number of setbacks that have threatened the continued existence of the demonstrations.

In New York, the protestors were evicted overnight from Zuccotti Park, the physical and spiritual birthplace of the movement. Police and local governments have similarly turned against the protesters in Oakland, San Francisco, Portland and dozens of other cities across the country. Additionally, public opinion appears to have soured on the Occupiers, with a recent Public Policy Polling survey indicating that support for the movement has fallen from 35 percent of American adults to 33 percent, while the percentage of those who disapprove has risen from 36 percent to 45 percent.

In light of these new developments, it may be easy to dismiss the protesters as simply a ragtag band of drugged-up homeless liberals looking for a free handout at the expense of productive members of society. This would be a tremendous mistake however, as this contemptuous approach overlooks the fact that the protests have raised a number of legitimate issues regarding greed and accountability on Wall Street, as well as concerning the role of money in politics. To be sure, the movement has a number of serious flaws that have hampered its ability to generate a broad following outside the encampments.

The leaderless nature of the protests, while attractive to those wary of power and influence, renders them unable to develop a coherent and consistent message. This has led each protest to issue its own set of demands, with some of the more ridiculous including the elimination of all free trade agreements and the establishment of a $25 per hour minimum wage. Additionally, though they claim to represent 99 percent of all Americans, the protesters tend to exclude from their movement anyone who does not subscribe to their anti-capitalist worldview, leaving them actually representing something more like .99 percent of the United States. Finally, the occupational nature of the protests — obstructing access to bridges, shutting down businesses and blocking streets — inconveniences a great many working Americans, destroys much of the sympathy they may have had for the movement and reinforces a perception that the protesters are little more than overzealous anarchists.

Despite these deficiencies, the protesters have raised a number of issues that suggest politicians and the business community should not dismiss the movement lightly. The Occupy protests have successfully tapped into the lingering anger and resentment that many Americans feel towards the financial institutions whose irresponsible risk-taking behavior played a substantial role in creating the economic crisis that has gripped this country for the past several years. Making matters worse is the almost complete lack of remorse expressed by many in the industry, and the fact that this reckless behavior is still highly pervasive on Wall Street (as evidenced in the disastrous investment practices at MF Global, which filed for bankruptcy after mysteriously misplacing over one billion dollars in customer funds). The Occupy movement has highlighted the broad support that exists in the United States for punishing and further regulating those financial institutions that fail to willingly reform their corporate cultures, meaning that if banks do not act quickly they will be subjected to ever more stringent regulations and taxes that will severely cut into their newly recovered earnings.

The Occupy protests have also served to focus attention on the dangerous influence of money on politics. So long as political campaigns continue to be funded by donations, American democracy will never be truly free and fair, as those individuals, interest groups, corporations and labor unions with massive resources at their disposal will always be able to dominate the political discourse and disproportionately influence policies and legislation adopted in Washington.

The only solution to this increasingly worrisome problem is to remove money from politics altogether, instead having all congressional campaigns funded through a system of public financing similar to that currently employed in presidential campaigns, only mandatory rather than voluntary. This would eliminate any incentive for political leaders to craft favorable regulations or legislation for those interest groups who contribute to their reelection campaigns and would mark a significant step towards returning the balance of political power to the ordinary American voter. If they are able to keep their focus on reasonable, broadly appealing goals such as these, the Occupy protests may yet continue to live on, and their legacy will live on as one of the few truly influential movements in the history of American democracy.

Ryan Williams is a junior. He can be reached at twilli15@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.