Published: The Newark Star-Ledger (October 14, 2011)
The pundits are claiming that Occupy Wall Street lacks a coherent agenda. I have one for them that can be summed up in two words: Rebuild America.
Although Occupy Wall Street’s anger has been targeted at the American plutocracy (a term best defined by Theodore Roosevelt as “government by men very powerful in certain lines and gifted with the ‘money touch,’ but with ideals which in their essence are merely those of so many glorified pawnbrokers”), it would be a mistake to assume, as many right-wingers have done, that this movement is driven by a desire to wage war against a particular class. People are taking to the streets not because they wish to punish the wealthy for being successful, but because the working class is being deprived of the opportunity to achieve similar success.
Millions of Americans are struggling desperately to obtain full-time work at a living wage, finding again and again that the jobs they need don’t exist. The argument that putting more money in the pockets of big business and the wealthy creates jobs has been discredited by the fact that both groups are richer than ever before while unemployment remains chronically high. At a time when so much of our infrastructure is crumbling and so many nascent industries are calling out for cultivation, the obvious answer is an ambitious government program that invests money in developing our nation while simultaneously putting people back to work. Because such an endeavor would cost a great deal and America can’t afford to further increase its dangerously large deficit, the only fiscally sound way for this to happen would be to raise taxes on the wealthy. Unfortunately, a seemingly impenetrable coalition of libertarians and conservatives, buttressed by the strong financial backing of plutocrats like the Koch brothers, is preventing such tax increases from being implemented.
This is where Occupy Wall Street has stepped in, and this is why I propose that their agenda consist of three parts:
• Editorial: Occupy Wall Street protestors want fairness and a future
• Editorial: Occupy Wall Street demonstrators send message: Where are the jobs?
• Moran: Occupy Wall Street protesters raising the right questions
• Braun: Occupy Wall Street began as a message and grew into a movement
• Guest: Occupy Wall Street deserves better, more accurate media coverage
• Ledger Live: A conservative visits Occupy Wall Street and finds (gasp!) Ron Paul fans
1) They should define their cause around the passage of the American Jobs Act. For one thing, it is far more difficult to propose new measures than it is to exert pressure behind initiatives that already exist. What’s more, this is a bill that would actually go a long way toward fulfilling many of America’s needs. It would invest billions in construction projects and infrastructure improvements, thus strengthening our society while lowering unemployment, as well as protect the jobs of our teachers, police officers, and firefighters and expand the private sector workforce by making it illegal for businesses to discriminate against the unemployed.
2) Republicans and tea party members claim that infrastructural programs are both socialistic and fail to create jobs. Because history proves the lie to such assertions, it is vital for Occupy Wall Street to wield this tool to its advantage. It must be pointed out that programs such as the ones they propose have a distinguished history in America, tracing back to the origins of our republic and being supported by presidents like George Washington (the Post Office Act of 1792), Abraham Lincoln (the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862), Franklin Roosevelt (the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act of 1935), and Dwight Eisenhower (the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956). On each occasion these programs were remarkably successful at not only employing large swathes of the population, but at developing our nation and increasing its prestige in the world community. Even Obama’s stimulus bills accomplished more than their critics wish to acknowledge. Although unemployment had been rising at a catastrophic rate of 0.4 percent per month between the month of the Wall Street meltdown (September 2008, when it was at 6.2 percent) and the month Obama’s policies could take effect (May 2009, when it reached 9.4 percent), it stabilized between 9.4 and 10.1 percent as a result of the first stimulus bill. After Obama attached a second stimulus to the Bush tax cut extensions, it fell to between 8.8 and 9.4 percent, where it has remained ever since.”
3) They must work to reelect Barack Obama. While many of the criticisms of his presidency are legitimate, it is clear that he is trying to define the election of 2012 around the American Jobs Act. If he is defeated, there can be no doubt that whichever Republican replaces him – be it Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, or anyone else – will oppose not only that specific bill but all other internal improvement measures that follow the tradition of Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower. If Obama wins, on the other hand, the fact that his victory will have been built around job-creating internal improvements will compel him to push for that agenda. This is a rare perfect storm of political opportunity, and Occupy Wall Street should take advantage of it.
Because we live in a culture that focuses on sound bytes instead of sophisticated arguments, even a movement as admirably diverse as Occupy Wall Street needs to find a simple way of summing up its position. While many of the current slogans are effective, there is one that truly captures not only the spirit of the movement, but the policies which it should support.
That slogan, once again, can be summed up in two words: Rebuild America.
Matthew Rozsa is a graduate student in history at Rutgers University-Newark. He will be starting a doctoral program in history at Lehigh University in January.