- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Little could seem so remote from one another than the 9-9-9 tax reform plan of Herman Cain and the chants of the "other 99 percent" as they occupy Wall Street. One is the politically motivated brain-child of a millionaire businessman while the other is a product of the barely contained anger of young people frustrated by the corruption and inequity inherent in the global politics and business today. Yet these two movements are actually linked together in more ways than you might think, nine to be exact:
1.) Both are products of the politics of alienation. Vast majorities on the right and left feel that the system is no long the means by which we fix our problems — it is the problem. They feel that politicians and Wall Street and big business are self-dealing and leaving the vast majority of Americans
2.) Both are fueled by a belief that the American dream is broken. The self-dealing has essentially gutted the promise of a better future for all those willing to work for it. The essentials of that dream — a home, the value one can build in that home, rising wages, a better tomorrow for our kids — they’re all gone or compromised for most Americans. For those who didn’t go to college there was once an opportunity to join the middle class and have a life of dignity — also gone. The idea of retiring seems also destined to soon become an exhibit in the Smithsonian as few Americans indeed will be able to afford it.
3.) Both turn on a common theme — driven by an intense indignation at inequity. It’s not just that they system is broken, as Nick Kristof writes compellingly in yesterday’s New York Times, it is that it has been gamed. A tiny few benefit and the rest of us of the country — the 99 percent, the residents of Main Street — are falling hopelessly, helplessly behind.
4.) Both a reactions against "the establishment" — although different halves of the establishment. The Tea Partiers think government is the problem. The Occupy Wall Street crowd think it’s the financial community or big corporations. The reality is that it is the collaboration between the two for decades (centuries actually) to change the rules of the system to give monied interests the upper hand, a free ride, bailouts when they need it (even when average home owners get nothing), etc.
5.) Both have "good hooks" — they are easily digested, communicated, understood. The reason that 59 point plans and 1000 page pieces of legislation get no traction is that they are difficult to communicate, understand, debate effectively. Condemn Cain or the protestors all you want, they are connecting because they are dealing at a visceral level with a problem that actually lives in people’s guts.
6.) Neither is truly radical. One is the defense of the status quo dressed up in the garb of "change" (where have we seen that before?). The other is unfocused anger. Radical would require an effort to really, truly and deeply challenge and change the system — to get money out of politics through federally financed elections, to limit the size of banks, to demand transparency and tighter regulation of derivative products, to effectively challenge corporate compensation systems, to toss out the current tax code and start over with something simpler…and, sorry Herman, fairer. We are at a time that demands real, constructive radicalism, a willingness to question everything, to embrace "dangerous’ ideas, to ask why we have markets, why we have the system of government we have, what our collective goals are, what our core political philosophies are and to be willing to remake and rebuild those institutions and systems and processes that don’t conform to our vision and our ideals
7.) Both are preludes to real change — but neither in its current form is the ultimate vehicle for that change. Because there is no "ask" for the Occupy Wall Street people, because 9-9-9 doesn’t add up and would be deeply unfair to poor and middle income Americans, the movements are more noteworthy for what fuels them than where they are going. The frustration will either lead to a real constructive change agenda…or it won’t, problems will deepen…and the real call for change will come more emphatically later.
8.) Each is being misinterpreted by the other. The Occupy Wall Streeters are not, as accused by the right, "anti-American." At their core what they are doing is as fundamentally American as can be. The Tea Partiers may not be my cup of…well, they may be hard for me to swallow…but they do have a legitimate beef that the government needs to operate in their interests and within its budget. That’s not to say one side will agree with the other…it’s to say that both should listen carefully for what is the same in their arguments. (So too should politicians on both sides who are too quick to view all this as politics as usual…and to play it as such.)
9.) Both should be welcomed by everyone — they are a sign of long-overdue activism. Now the job is to translate that activism into meaningful change…which I think may require a very different set of political leaders and parties than we have today.