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Occupy Wall Street and America’s Un-Representative Democracy

How do Egyptians, Iranians and Chinese look at the way U.S. authorities are handling the Wall Street protests?

November 17, 2011

How do Egyptians, Iranians and Chinese look at the way U.S. authorities are handling the Wall Street protests?

A few months ago, when the focus was on Egypt’s Tahrir Square and on Bahrain’s Pearl Square, there was a lot of self-righteousness in U.S. media about the strong-arm tactics the authorities there used on the protesters.

Now that the focus is on U.S. cities from New York to Oakland, how forceful is the indignation in U.S. media? “Not very” would be the understatement of the year. Instead of displaying indignation when similar police tactics are used at home, the U.S. media basically consort with the authorities. What a difference from the self-satisfied way they behaved during the Arab Spring. Then, the arrogance of authorities crudely suppressing protests by clearing protesters’ public spaces was shown on a near-incessant loop.

The resulting impression — U.S. media are tough when it comes to Arab governments, yet far too soft when it comes to their own — cannot please anybody but hardliners in Beijing, Manama, Tehran, Cairo and Damascus. For the rest of us, it is an undignified and very high-handed display of non-accommodation. And this from the nation that, via its Secretary of State, makes a keen endeavor to teach others about democracy. How about a dose of democracy for the United States itself?

Whatever one thinks of the Occupy Wall Street movement, its antics, shortcomings and idiosyncrasies, it has been quite disciplined and peaceful. And yet, that wasn’t enough for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He used some trumped-up, if not outright false, charges of possible unlawful behavior to justify clearing Zuccotti Park.

In giving his order, and thus standing up to the so-called 99%, the otherwise very “3M” type of man (as in media-savvy multibillionaire mayor), did not even seem to realize how badly he bungled his actions. He made his billions of wealth by selling information products to, you guessed it, Wall Street elites.

He isn’t just a member of the top 1%. With a net worth of nearly $20 billion, he is the 12th-richest person in America — which, in terms of wealth, puts him in the top 0.00000384% of Americans. If old rules of conflict of interest were even vaguely still in play, Mr. Mayor would have had to recuse himself from the decision to clear Zuccotti Park, rather than playing the role of tough guy.

What confuses people around the world is that things like the Occupy Wall Street movement aren’t even supposed to happen in the United States. The reason for that widely held assumption is quite different from what most Americans would imagine it to be. A country so rich, with such a high per capita income, should be able to take care of its people. Americans — in sharp contrast to the Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians, Bahrainis and Iranians — should have no reason to go to the barricades.

That some young Americans (and some not-so-young citizens) do so is a telltale sign of the despair that is gripping the United States. And the best the Fox-y forces of Rupert Murdoch, the don of a media empire (core parts of which are scandalously given to illegal observation techniques), can do? Pull out the old canard, that the United States is a republic, not a democracy.

The trouble with that argument should be self-evident to the forces of statism. Usually, it is trotted out to support the notion that low voter participation levels (which disastrously correspond rather directly to low income levels) do not matter. Why is that believed to be so by American conservatives? Because it allows them to create the fiction that abstention from voting, and non-participation in public life in general, constitutes “the consent of the governed.”

In other words, those busy working two full-time jobs each day to make ends meet signal their “approval” by not voting. How much more absurd, how much more cynical, can the United States’ conservative elites be?

Worse, when the “lamestream media” (yes, this is Sarah Palin’s one great contribution to the American lexicon) try to swat down the Occupy Wall Street movement, they often commit a major strategic error. Despite the desire to portray the movement’s members as a ragtag band, they end up interviewing what turn out to be very articulate spokespeople.

The latter can use their few seconds on live TV to make well-reasoned points. They say compelling things such as, “Instead of expending their efforts on clearing the public squares, authorities should focus on what really matters. They should concentrate their efforts on working to create jobs for young people, reducing ruinous healthcare costs and restraining corporate power.”

Indeed, corporate power in the United States has reached such a zenith that it is hard for mainstream, middle-class Americans to disagree with Occupy Wall Street’s core logic.

When one interviewee in Zuccotti Square was asked to explain his opposition to the way things are in the United States on CNN International, he pointed out a nearby example from the offices of WellPoint. Indicative of the United States’ healthcare cost crisis, this major health insurer with offices on Wall Street chose to close a small group health plan in New York City when the company was only allowed a 20% year-on-year increase, rather than a 40% increase.

And the CNN reporter’s reaction? To cut off the interview by saying, “Let’s not pick on individual companies!” The fear of losing another mighty advertiser apparently trumps any notion of the articulation of democracy. It is worth noting that, under different circumstances, the reporter would demand the exact opposite — to not allow general claims to stand without specific evidence.

The lasting and growing attractiveness of the Occupy Wall Street movement is not due to anything else than a growing sense among the American people that things have gotten out of hand, that the people are very far from being in charge in the United States, regardless of all the rhetoric to the contrary.

Corporate power is excessive in the United States. But don’t put that down to capitalism. Other countries, in Europe mainly, are capitalist as well and quite capable of restraining such excesses, perhaps because of their far stronger social (and revolutionary) traditions, at least when compared to the United States.

In the end, it’s quite simple really. The United States has always claimed that it is a representative democracy. But, looking at the personal wealth levels prevailing in the U.S. Congress, that is far from true. Based on the national average, statistically speaking there should not be more than five or six millionaires among the 535 members of Congress. In reality, nearly half of Congress — 47% — are millionaires, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. There are 66 in the Senate (two-thirds of the members of that august body) and 183 in the House of Representatives (42% of members).

Perhaps it is no wonder that the congressional budget supercommittee has such a hard time coming up with a tax-raising compromise. The current, well-endowed members of Congress would largely vote to raise taxes predominantly on themselves. Imagine a conflict-of-interest rule were applied: Nobody could participate in a vote on a tax increase that would negatively affect themselves. U.S. fiscal policy would likely be in considerably better shape.

And so would the world economy. For all the incessant efforts of the U.S. administration to shift blame to Europe, it is quite clear that the world economy suffers more from the constant inability of the United States to deal in earnest with its real problems, than from the only gradual ability of the Europeans to resolve theirs.

Whether it’s the Occupy Wall Street movement or the Europeans, in the end the 1%, on a bipartisan basis, always agrees on one thing: It’s the other folks’ fault.


The attractiveness of Occupy Wall Street is due to a growing sense that the people are not in charge in the United States.

The United States has always claimed that it is a representative democracy. But that is far from true.

Statistically speaking, there should not be more than five or six millionaires among the 535 members of Congress. In reality, 47% are millionaires.

The world economy suffers more from the <i>constant</i> inability of the U.S. to deal with its problems than from the only <i>gradual</i> ability of the Europeans to resolve theirs.