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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Across the Barricades

By Tom Phillips

In several months of protesting with Occupy Wall Street, at Zuccotti Park, Times Square, Foley Square and Lincoln Center, I got into a number of conversations across the barricades.  As a more or less respectable 70-year-old, with signs in non-vulgar  language, I was an inviting target for curious cops, tourists, and passersby with one question on their minds:  What do you want?? 

“What would make you happy?  What would make you stop?” asked one exasperated cop at Lincoln Center, after complaining about 20-hour shifts on the barricades.

What I want is modest: a return to fairer competition and more equal sharing in the economic sphere, and a defensible set of values.  Protesters of my age have lived nearly 30 percent of this nation’s history, and we have seen sea-changes in the way America behaves, and the way we feel about ourselves as a nation.   Few would idealize the America of the 40s and 50s, with its stains of racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-communist witch hunts.  Still, the prevailing attitude then was one of common hope – that an expanding economy would benefit everyone, that success was to be shared.  Economic powers were roughly balanced – business was big but so was organized labor, strikes were feared and wages rose roughly in proportion to profits.  A progressive tax code with high marginal rates made the rich grumble, but for the most part they paid, out of respect for the “common man” who was seen as the hero of our economic as well as military dominance in the world.  It was a mentality of abundance. 

The U-S economy has continued to expand in the 50 years since my youth, but our mentality of abundance has disappeared.   I tried to tell the cop at the barricade that what I want would be good for him as well, as a member of the 99 percent.   I said we were basically in the same boat – like him, I had had a secure job with a strong union, good benefits, and a decent retirement.   But I didn’t want to live in a country that was denying those things to more and more of its people, including my own children and grandchildren.   The cop agreed that we were in the same boat, but his attitude was different:  “We can’t just give that to everybody, can we?  We can’t afford it.”   To him, his middle-class lifestyle was something to be defended against others’ claims.   We’re in the same boat, all right, but the only way we can stay in it is to keep others from climbing aboard.   Even as our national wealth has multiplied, America’s mentality of abundance has been replaced by one of scarcity and fear. 

What happened is NOT explained by a decline in the U-S economy; there has been no such thing.  Per capita GDP has more than doubled since 1960, but wages have risen less than half that (and hardly at all since the 1970s), while stock values have multiplied fourteenfold.  The bottom line is that the vast majority of increased wealth has gone to employers and investors.   That is due not to economics but politics:  a series of power grabs by the wealthiest Americans that deprived the rest of us of our share, and left us believing there’s not enough to go around.  

I watched it unfold and wrote about it as a journalist for nearly 50 years.   The 1960s opened with a surge of optimism.  When John F. Kennedy delivered his  inaugural speech -- “ask what you can do for your country” – America seemed to be on the verge of unparalleled greatness, and it was felt to be a communal effort, harking back to the general mobilization that won World War Two.   But as everyone knows, our age of unparalleled greatness crashed and burned in Vietnam, taking down with it Lyndon Johnson’s unpaid-for vision of a Great Society.  The election of Richard Nixon in 1968 began a conservative backlash that stumbled through the 1970s, but found its transformational leader in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. 

The Reagan revolution, for all its economic benefits, undermined our sense of common purpose.  Reaganomics – that heady combination of deregulation, tax cuts for the rich, and a back of the hand for labor -  made it suddenly cool to take as much as you could for yourself, and never mind anyone else.  Corporations and individuals alike took the message to heart; the goal now was not just to make but to “maximize” profits, which meant that no amount of wealth was ever enough.  Our heroes were no longer common people but super-rich entrepreneurs and investors, as well as overpaid athletes and entertainers.  Rather than members of a winning team, these were seen as individuals who made their own rules, who left their peers and colleagues in the dust. 

Not everyone was comfortable with the new doctrine.  Accepting the Republican nomination in 1988, George H.W. Bush tried to moderate the free-market euphoria, calling timidly for a “kinder, gentler America.”  But that was drowned out in the celebration over the collapse of communism in 1989.  That seemed to seal the case for individual careerism, against any kind of collectivist thinking. 

The revolution stumbled again in the 1990s, as Ross Perot split the conservative majority and gave the White House to the Democrats.  But it didn’t stop, as the policies of the Clinton years made clear:  expanding global free trade, curtailing welfare at home, and deregulating banks with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999.  The revolution reached its zenith in 2001 with the Bush tax cuts, which undermined the government’s ability to pay for itself, while accelerating the flow of wealth to the top one percent.   All this paved the way for the economic collapse of 2008 and the “great recession” that brought us to Zuccotti Park and this winter of discontent. 

So what is to be done?   Right now, it’s too cold for mass demonstrations, and camping out is only for the foolhardy.  Occupy Wall Street made its point and the real distinction between the one percent and the ninety-nine is widely accepted, as is the fact that growing inequality is bad for the economy as well as the social fabric.  

It was politics that got us into this mess, and politics will get us out.  But politics begins with the people.  Our President, the great compromiser for most of his first term, now seems to get the idea that there’s a bold movement out there that can re-elect him, if he’s squarely on the side of the public and not the oligarchies.  We need to hold him accountable if he wins.  And we need to do that at every level and branch of government.   We need to raise a new generation of political leaders who understand that we elect them to serve our interests, not sell us out. 

This is not going to be quick or easy.  It took thirty years for the right wing to establish its chokehold on American democracy, and it may take thirty years to pry every one of its fingers loose.  But the tide has turned. 

On New Year’s Eve, my wife and I went back to Zuccotti Park hoping to celebrate the New Year with our fellow protesters.  Unfortunately, most of the other celebrants were kids looking to pick a fight with the cops, who were glad to oblige.   Our conclusion:  there are more important things to do in 2012.   There’s no point in fighting with the cops; better to talk to them across the barricades, and convince them that what they too need is a government that looks out first for the interests of their families, not banks and corporations.  This kind of voter may indeed be the key to election 2012:  the middle and working-class whites who became Republicans in the Reagan years, and who have been ill-served by the GOP ever since. 

I don’t know how much progress I made with my blue-shirted friend at Lincoln Center.  He was suddenly called away to defend another part of the plaza against invading protesters.   His last words  were "I'll be back," but I never saw him again.  If you see him, whether across the barricades, in a donut shop, or watching the Super Bowl, talk to him.  

Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips