What Occupy Wall Street meant (or didn’t) to politics

September 17, 2013

Two years ago today, protesters began gathering at Zuccotti Park in New York City to protest corporate malfeasance and income inequality (among other things). It was the start of Occupy Wall Street, a semi-national movement that -- for a few months at least -- was being talked about as a force that could re-shape politics heading into the 2012 presidential election.


But, did it?

Opinions vary -- although there is general agreement that while Occupy Wall Street impacted messaging in the presidential race, its legislative impact has been almost nil.

"It helped solidify the vocabulary of the top one percent and that persists, though distinguishing between the rich and the rest of us was hardly an innovation," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman of Occupy.  "It also gave us an interesting subplot on Newsroom."

To Mellman's point, the clearest long(ish)-term impact of Occupy on politics is the staying power of the much-repeated "We are the 99 percent" slogan.  The idea behind the slogan, that the one percent of wealthiest Americans keep getting richer and more comfortable while everyone else struggles, is a powerful one that undergirded much of President Obama's messaging during the 2012 campaign.

Way back in December 2011 in Osawatomie, Kansas Obama mentioned the Occupy movement. "There has been a raging debate over the best way to restore growth and prosperity; balance and fairness," Obama said. "Throughout the country, it has sparked protests and political movements – from the Tea Party to the people who have been occupying the streets of New York and other cities."

And, the idea that the one percent got rewarded while everyone else got the shaft was at the center not only of Obama's positive message (that he was a fighter for the middle class) but of his negative message against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as well.

"When Governor Romney and his friends in Congress tell us we can somehow lower our deficits by spending trillions more on new tax breaks for the wealthy, well, what’d Bill Clinton call it?," Obama asked during his speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. "You do the arithmetic, you do the math."

That framing worked -- big time. Obama became the middle class champion while Romney was cast as a protecter of the wealthy. Exit polling tells the story.  Just 10 percent of people said Obama's policies favored the rich while 44 percent said they favored the middle class. That's a stark contrast to the 53 percent of people who said Romney's policies favored the wealthy.

While Obama and his political team would almost certainly sought to frame the election as a choice between a protector of the middle class and a protecter of wealthy elites even if Occupy Wall Street had never existed, the fact that it galvanized a certain segment of the country reassured the president and his strategists of the potential power of that messaging.

Beyond that message influence, however, it's hard to see where Occupy can claim to have had a lasting influence. While President Obama continues to focus on the need to create equal opportunity for all Americans to succeed -- he did so again yesterday in an economic-focused speech -- there is little doubt that the focus of the coming fiscal fight this fall in Congress will be debt reduction, not income inequality. And, legislatively speaking, little has come from the protests that galvanized Occupy.

In part, according to a variety of political observers, that lack of legislative accomplishment is the movement's own fault. Born as a leaderless, grassroots effort, Occupy wound up becoming a sort of catch-all of causes as opposed to a single set of demands for Congress, the President or society more broadly to act on. Its explicit rejection of any sort of chain of command or a list of key issues virtually ensured that it would not get what it wanted -- since it was always unclear what exactly the Occupy folks, well, wanted.

The other thing that has plagued Occupy's chances of remaining a lasting player in the political space is that was never a terribly popular movement. While little polling has been done on Occupy as of late -- a sign of its relative irrelevance to politics --an NBC- Wall Street Journal poll in July 2012 showed that just 26 percent of people had a positive view of the movement, 40 percent had a negative one and roughly one in three either were neutral or didn't have an opinion.

What's clear two years on is that Occupy Wall Street didn't turn into a lasting movement with deep impact on the political landscape. It helped re-frame or re-emphasize the populist messaging that President Obama ran and won on. But, beyond that, its impact on our political culture has been minimal.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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