Paul Street. Guest Edtorial in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 7, 2011.
What a difference an election cycle makes.
Around this time four years ago, the race for Iowa’s Democratic Party presidential caucus was in full swing. The big national money and media focus was on corporate-sponsored candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but John Edwards was electrifying town hall crowds across the state with populist jeremiads against the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small economic elite.
“Real progressive change” would require “an epic fight” with the wealthy few, Edwards insisted. He criticized the future president’s promise to achieve such change by “sitting down at a big negotiating table” with Republicans and corporate leaders as a dangerous fantasy. “They’ll eat everything served,” Edwards observed.
Edwards’ career collapsed in scandal. Buoyed by his historic Iowa Caucus victory, however, Obama went on to richly validate his former opponent’s warnings. With its monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its refusal to nationalize and cut down the parasitic financial institutions that paralyzed the economy, its passage of a health reform bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love and numerous other “betrayals” of the Democrats’ progressive base (the other side of the coin of promises kept to rich and powerful bankrollers), Obama’s presidency has demonstrated the long reach of the nation’s unelected dictatorship of money.
Under Obama as under George W. Bush, we have seen Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused economic catastrophe and “learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it” (William Greider). The “right people” do not include the record-setting 46 million Americans stuck below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty measure or the 25 million U.S. unemployed.
Edwards may be political history, but his last principle campaign issue is in the national spotlight like no time in recent memory thanks to a remarkable new protest movement that targets the fortunes, greed, and influence of “the 1 percent.”
A recent/CBS New York Times survey shows that substantially more Americans agree (43 percent) than disagree (27 percent) with the Occupy Wall Street movement’s goals. Nearly two-thirds say American wealth should be distributed more equally. As Democrats struggle to rally their “disappointed” and demobilized base and media operatives chase arch-plutocratic Republican contenders across Iowa, the occupation movement has brought new populist energy to the state, with active sites in Des Moines, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and other locations.
Mainstream commentators miss the mark when they portray Occupy Wall Street as “the Tea Party of the left.” One critical difference among many is that Occupy Wall Street is genuinely independent of candidate-centered major-party politics.
The Tea Party phenomenon has been all about giving the Republican Party a fake-populist electoral makeover at the end of the day. By contrast, the genuinely populist and grassroots occupation movement is not going to be easily sucked into Democratic Party politics. The Occupiers get it that democracy is no less crippled by the dark cloud of big money when Democrats hold nominal power than when Republicans do.
They know that real progressive change can only come from an epic peoples’ fight against concentrated wealth and power. They know that (to quote Howard Zinn) “it’s not about who’s sitting in the White House” at the end of the day. It’s about “who’s sitting in,” marching, demonstrating, occupying and organizing beyond the “personalized electoral extravaganzas” (Noam Chomsky) big money and big media stage for us every four years, telling us “that’s politics” (the only politics that matters).
They speak for and as citizens, not politicians, knowing that (with very rare exceptions) even the most outwardly charismatic among the latter category will always surrender their integrity in the name of “realism.” I doubt that even a scandal-free John Edwards on steroids could bring them back into the major party and electoral fold.
Iowa City resident Paul Street is the author of several books, including “Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis” (2007). “Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics” (2008) and “Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics” (2011).