The Occupy Wall Street protests, no matter how unfocused or leaderless they have been, have at least finally begun to focus national attention onto economic inequality and the rapidly shrinking middle class. The protests have taken aim at the symbols of American capitalism and have taken their anger out on the institutions many Americans believe were responsible for the financial crisis. But in order for real political change to occur, the movement must succeed at changing the entrenched political vocabulary that has for long dominated policy discourse in this country.
I am referring to the discourse of “the free market.” It is widely acknowledged that a majority of Americans self-identify as “conservative” even while Democrats may control the presidency and the Senate. The Republican Congress of today is far more conservative than was the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and even George W. Bush. Since Reagan’s election heralded a brave new political world (government is the problem not the solution), the dominant undercurrent in American political discourse has been resentment to the Federal government and mistrust of government institutions and of course, taxes.
Free market economic thought ala Milton Friedman replaced Keynesism as accepted Dogma. Of course, Republican presidents from Reagan to George W. Bush never really followed the strictest interpretation of these ideas. They campaigned for tax cuts but never had the political nerve to significantly cut spending. The Tea Party radicalism of the current Congress has begun to put aside those trifling restraints.
Nevertheless real change will probably not occur until the vast swath of lower-income voters that vote Republican begin to realize that in its current parlance, “free-market” is code for deregulation and prioritization of large corporate interests over small businesses and those who can’t afford to send a lobbyist to Washington.
The “free market” appears so natural and divine that it’s hard to oppose its sweet sugary sound. And yet, what’s free about a system that rewards only those companies that can buy access? What’s free about rewarding only those industries that can afford lobbyist muscle? What’s free about only rewarding those who have the means to hire a phalanx of lawyers to find every loophole in the tax code?
Then there’s this idea of “job-killing” that’s still plausible enough to form a credible sound-bite to contradict the calls for increased taxes. Throughout the current financial doldrums, corporate profits and stocks have grown while employment has stagnated and interest rates have remained near zero. Don’t forget most companies face the lowest real tax burden they have faced in fifty years. And if the Republicans were so concerned about job-killing, wouldn’t they be concerned about those government workers that will lose their jobs when their draconian cuts take place?
So until economic discourse shifts, the right will continue to deceive a sizeable amount of Americans to believe that their interests are served by continuing the same policies of deregulation, spending cuts, and tax cuts that have helped create the highest levels of economic inequality since the Great Depression. Until “liberal” becomes not a curse word, but a word that connotes open-mindedness, a belief in shared prosperity and investment in the future, the protesters in New York and elsewhere will face an uphill battle. But now, even against the constant denunciations on FOX News, the movement has begun to focus the national and even global conversation on the economic inequality that is the inevitable byproduct of “free markets.”
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