For the cable news networks, the “political calendar” this year has meant a (seemingly endless) series of debates between the various Republican worthies. But in hindsight, an alternate series of dates seems at least as important, foreshadowing the next great convulsion in the country’s politics:
●Feb. 14: Thousands begin descending on Madison, Wis., to protest attacks on union bargaining rights. The demonstrations begin with the labor movement but soon expand to include environmentalists, church groups and the rest of the progressive spectrum. Soon the demonstrations are the largest in the state since the Vietnam War.
●Aug. 20: Two weeks of sit-ins begin at the White House; before they’re over, 1,253 people have been arrested for protesting the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, the biggest civil disobedience actions since the 1980s.
●Sept. 17: The first few hundred protesters arrive in New York for Occupy Wall Street, their numbers and visibility soon surging and sympathy occupations eventually popping up across the country. More than 700 are arrested in a single day.
Something fresh is afoot in this country, drawing its inspiration from the Arab Spring. It’s what Van Jones, head of Rebuild the Dream, has taken to calling “the American Autumn.” Yes, that Van Jones, the one the White House unceremoniously dumped overboard after Glenn Beck (preposterously) called him a communist. Now Jones is back on stage — and so is a strain of American populism that many have been waiting to see emerge. No one knows if it will turn into political action, à la the Tea Party, or morph into something altogether new. But the energy is undeniable — even Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said he understood the anger of Wall Street protesters.
In certain ways, this kind of protest is long overdue. Wall Street in recent days has had the feel of Seattle amid the huge World Trade Organization demonstrations of 2000, a nascent movement against concentrated wealth whose fires were banked by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That anxiety might have erupted again amid the financial crisis of 2008, but many were willing to put their trust in Barack Obama and on the wings of a campaign that promised transformative change. Many of us were waiting for him to take decisive action — action that has never come. One reason may be the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that allowed Wall Street, and the rest of corporate America, to, well, occupy the public square. When that decision came down, it was almost as though big business said: We’re not even going to pretend any more. We run this country.
So this American Autumn is a push-back against the ever-expanding powers of the elite. Take the Keystone pipeline battle: The administration outsourced the environmental review to a firm that had worked for the pipeline builder. As e-mails released recently under the Freedom of Information Act revealed, a State Department official was cheering on the pipeline project, perhaps because Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton’s former deputy campaign manager is its chief lobbyist. A few days ago, reporters uncovered evidence that the Koch brothers, the third- and fourth-richest men in this country, had “direct and significant” ties to the pipeline. In other words: The game was wired. Wired for pipelines, for bank bailouts, for benefit cuts, for all the things that corporate America has ever wanted, and none of the things that people suffering in a dead economy on a heating planet need and deserve.
Some have complained that the movement is inchoate, that it hasn’t issued a list of demands, that it has no leader. Perhaps those will emerge in time; more crucial is the debate underway in occupied downtown parks and engaged Internet forums, about how to shoulder aside connection and privilege and reinstall a democracy that works for “the other 99 percent.” It owes a little something to the Tea Party, but it identifies the real enemy less in government than in the corporate power that so easily manipulates that government. And if the Tea Party speaks to an older generation deprived of the America its adherents remember, this new movement speaks to a younger generation robbed of the future it had been led to expect.
It would be folly to predict how all this will evolve. But there are a couple of dates you can put on the calendar:
●Nov. 6: Pipeline protesters will return to the White House, one year before the next election, to encircle it with thousands of activists. We’ll be carrying signs with Obama’s words from the 2008 campaign (“time to end the tyranny of oil”). This may be one of the president’s last chances to make peace with this emerging force.
●Nov. 17: The Rebuild the Dream campaign promises thousands of “visible, urgent actions,” modeled on Occupy Wall Street, around its “jobs not cuts” theme. Notice the Twitter hashtags already springing up: #occupyphoenix, #occupyindianapolis. It’s spreading.
And after that, who knows? Which is the point. By the time autumn is over and winter descends, our politics may look very different.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Dintinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and an organizer of tarsandsaction.org.