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Transatlantic Voices

Democrats banking on Occupy's social impact

The Occupy Movement in the United States may have provided the Democrats with what could be a winning issue at the ballot box - social justice, writes Andreas Etges for DW's Transatlantic Voices column.

Andreas Etges is Professor of North American History at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Free University of Berlin.

Many observers consider the Occupy Movement a left-wing counter-movement to the Tea Party movement. But there is a growing frustration among many American progressives and Democratic activists that the "members" of the Occupy Movement, in contrast to those of the Tea Party movement, are much less interested in party politics and are not willing to support President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party in the upcoming elections. While their lament is somewhat understandable, they miss the larger point: The Occupy Movement has given the Democrats an issue they can run on and that could be a winning one: social justice.

For several years, the Tea Party movement, conservative think tanks and media, some of them with much financial support from the Koch Brothers (owners of the second-largest privatedly owned company in the US and prominent donors to the Republican campaign - the ed.) and others have set the political agenda in the United States. President Obama in his attempt to be a moderator, kept compromising and compromising, with little success. The Republican opposition to a large degree decided to fight everything that came from the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress. At the same time, Obama's supporters became increasingly frustrated by his inability or his unwillingness to be more confrontational.

Hard slog

Currently, about 60 members of the House and a handful of Senators - all Republicans - belong to the powerful Tea Party Caucus. Their number could even grow in the next Congress, since even a number of prominent old-style conservatives lost in the Republican primaries to more right-wing newcomers.

Prof. Dr. Andreas Etges, Professor of North American History, John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin.

Andreas Etges

It will be a hard fight for Obama and the Democratic Party, and the president's reelection seems far from certain. There is much less enthusiasm on the Left and among progressives to once again work for his victory. So wouldn't it be great to win over the Occupy Movement and its supporters to campaign for Obama? In a way it would, but not only will this not happen, the Occupy Movement has already done a great job for Obama and his party, which is worth more than volunteering as campaign workers. And it is something the Democrats would have been unable to do on their own.

The Occupy Movement has fundamentally changed the political discourse in the United States. "We are the 99 percent" has become a tremendously powerful slogan, that puts the spotlight on the growing social divide in the US, the ever-growing inequality and, of course, also on the 1 percent whose wealth has also been growing.

Winds of change

Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee could feel how the winds have changed during the Republican primaries. A group supporting Newt Gingrich produced the 28-minute video "When Mitt Romney Came to Town." In it, in a style somewhat reminiscent of Michael Moore's social criticism, the former CEO of Bain Capital was described as a corporate raider whose economic decisions destroyed the livelihoods of many workers. The Obama campaign has also repeatedly used similar arguments against Romney, who is clearly on the defensive on this issue even though he claims to have been a job creator.

To be sure, 99 against 1 percent rather simplifies the issues and does not give a clear direction for reforms. In that sense it might be a left-wing equivalent of the Tea Party movement's anti-government and anti-tax credo. But it puts popular pressure on Congress and the White House, to not just bail out banks, but to change course in financial and social legislation. And more importantly, regarding the elections in November, it has forced the Democratic Party to take a clear stand or at least a clearer stand on these issues. And it has quite possibly handed them a winning issue and has put the Republicans at least in part on the defensive. That is quite a lot for a social movement as anarchistic as the Occupy Movement.

Editor: Rob Mudge

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