As demonstrations inspired by Occupy Wall Street spread and drew media attention, they became a kind of Rorschach test for politicians and pundits across the political spectrum.
Many conservatives saw them as potentially dangerous mobs of whiners and losers engaging in "class warfare."
GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain's blast spoke for many Republicans: "Don't blame Wall Street, don't blame the big banks; if you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself!"
President Barack Obama and the Democrats are trying to co-opt the angry energy of the demonstrators for their 2012 campaign. They hope that OWS and its sympathizers will see a big enough difference between the Democrats' GOP-lite policies and the Republicans' campaign to gut social programs.
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What the Washington political establishment fails to see, or is afraid to admit, is that the OWS movement is part of a crisis of legitimacy. We're talking here about political legitimacy, a kind of faith without which a society is unstable.
The great social theorist Max Weber famously said that for a government to be legitimate, citizens must have a certain kind of faith: "The basis of every system of authority, and correspondingly of every kind of willingness to obey, is a belief, a belief by virtue of which persons exercising authority are lent prestige."
The demonstrators call themselves the "99 percent." They contrast themselves with the top 1 percent of households who own an astonishing 40 percent of the nation's wealth. They see the 1 percent as having created a government of the people (the 99 percent), by and for the richest 1 percent — an illegitimate plutocracy.
This one percent has been grabbing an increasing share of national income since the beginning of the Reagan era of "trickle-down" economics.
During this era, worker incomes no longer kept pace with increased worker productivity. In other words, workers received a diminishing share of the wealth created by their labor.
The Great Recession of 2007 did take a toll on even the top 1 percent, but they are still doing very nicely. According to an Economic Policy Institute report on March 23, "The wealthiest 1 percent of U.S. households had net worth that was 225 times greater than the median or typical household's net worth in 2009. This is the highest ratio on record."
USA Today reports that total student loans outstanding will exceed $1 trillion for the first time this year. Americans now owe more on student loans than on credit cards. All those unemployed or under-employed college graduates with large debts are joining a disappearing middle class.
The Census Bureau reports that another 2.6 million Americans sank below the poverty level in 2010, joining a total of 46.2 million.
Economist Jared Bernstein reports that in 2010 "the bottom 40 percent of the household income distribution now hold the lowest share of household income on record (11.8 percent), with data back to 1967."
The distorted income and wealth distribution in the U.S. is mostly due to government policies. The last 30 years have seen a government-run experiment in laissez-faire capitalism: massive tax cuts for the already wealthy, tax loopholes and subsidies for already profitable mega-corporations, sweeping deregulation of the financial sector (a main cause of the Great Recession), and labor policies that weakened unions and shrank their membership.
Incredibly, the GOP is pushing for more of the same, and Democrats are willing to cut a deal with them.
On Oct. 22, this newspaper ran an excellent cartoon by Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News. It showed Tea Party demonstrators outside a door labeled Big Government, and OWS demonstrators at a door labeled Big Banks. Each door leads into the same towering building.
The single building represents what economist James K. Galbraith calls the "predator state." Glen Greenwald defines it as "a merger of government power and corporate interests, which benefits both of the merged entities (the party in power and the corporations) at everyone else's expense."
Democrats and Republicans compete in election campaigns funded by the super-rich for the right to serve the super-rich. The winning party is the one that seems to promise voters the most scraps from the plutocrats' table.
We need to ask ourselves: is this a legitimate government?