Even After Occupy Wall Street Protests, America's 1% Will Still Control the 2012 Elections

A year before the start of the Occupy Movement, there was an important development, which has had and will continue to have a tremendous impact on the political process for years to come. On January 21, 2010, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, removed any limit on the amount of money that corporations and wealthy individuals could spend on elections. Even before the decision, the corporate elite and the investor class could shape legislation through their paid lobbyists. This court decision would give them even more sway over elected officials. While the Occupy Movement is trying to push politicians to address growing income inequality, the top 1% has been even more empowered by this ruling to maintain the status quo. In the past few decades, money has been the lubricant that has allowed the political wheel to turn. Therefore, although the Occupy Movement has had a promising start by making economic inequality a major issue, the 1% is poised to have a much greater influence in the upcoming presidential election.

On September 17, 2011, a group of young people took over Zuccotti Park in the heart of New York's financial district. As they camped out in the park, these young activists voiced their discontent at the alarming gap between the super wealthy and the rest of the population. Their oft-repeated slogan that “we are the 99%” perfectly captured this sentiment. The movement has not only put the spotlight on the ever-growing economic inequality in the country but it managed to inject the issue into the political conversation.

Since the Occupy Movement's inception, the occupiers have eschewed electoral politics in, sharp contrast to the top 1%.. The movement has no leaders and no concrete political agenda; that said, the movement still galvanized a number of young people across the country. Within months, encampments sprang up in many major cities across America and the world, attracting a great deal of media attention in the process for the protesters tenacity and willingness to live in those camps for months. After years of ignoring the huge chasm between the haves and the haves-not, the media were finally covering the issue.

Putting this important issue on the national agenda has been a notable achievement. To create real change, however, Congress would need to pass legislation to address the problem.  Such important legislation would only pass in Congress if a majority of elected officials supports it, or would not dare to oppose it because they know that they would be paying a political price.

The question that arises, then, is the following: what is the most effective way to make people in Congress deal with this urgent matter? In order to get elected to Congress, candidates would need to raise a lot of money to run the campaign, and they would also need to convince a majority of the voters to cast a ballot for them. There are, therefore, many ways that an elected official could be influenced to vote a certain way. First, they are likely to vote for a bill if their major campaign contributors support the legislation. Second, they are likely to support it if their constituents also support the bill. Third, they are likely to support it if their support would not cause an outcry in their state or district, which could jeopardize their seats. Lastly, support would be possible if such a vote would not lead to a credible challenge either in the primary or during the general election. To increase their effectiveness, the Occupy Movement would need to encourage young people to vote in greater numbers for preferred candidates. It would be equally important if they could contribute financially to their campaigns.

Although the Occupy Movement has helped to broaden the political conversation by forcing the political class to address the issue of income inequality, its ability to achieve substantive political victories i.e. getting people elected in Congress a la the Tea Party have been severely limited. A movement does not work if it is not able to mobilize a large number of people. But that movement would not be effective if it is unable to translate its demands into tangible successes. Such success would not occur without playing an active role in the electoral process, which could range from voting for preferred candidates to providing funding to their campaigns.

In contrast to the occupiers who are reluctant to get fully-engaged in the political process, the top 1% do not have no such qualms. During elections, the top 1% tend to finance the campaigns of candidates and incumbents who would either pass laws that would protect their financial interests, or block legislation that would threaten it. A case in point is that during the 2010 midterm elections, many American companies funneled millions of dollars to the Chamber of Commerce to support mostly Republican candidates because they were against many initiatives such as the health care law and financial regulation.  

With the Supreme Court giving the green light to wealthy individuals and corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose candidates, the already considerable political clout of the 1% would grow exponentially stronger. Nowhere would this influence be felt more than in the upcoming presidential election. According to Politico, the super-wealthy intend to spend a record $1 billion to finance outside groups that would saturate the airwaves with political ads in support of Mitt Romney and other Republicans during the presidential election. The article also points out that billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, would contribute 40% of that money. As the piece further indicates, these two brothers would shell out more money in the presidential race than John McCain had spent during his run for the presidency.

There is some indication that the Occupy Movement might be at its ebb. Since it has been a movement made up of young people, the greater danger, however, is that many of them could become disengaged from the political process if they feel that the movement fails to achieve its goal. For a large number of these activists, their participation in the Occupy Movement was their first foray into politics. Unfortunately, instead of adopting a more concrete plan of action i.e. canvassing, raising money, and voting for like-minded politicians to achieve their goal, many in the movement are likely to conclude that nothing could be done to make the political system more responsive to their demands. This perception of failure could lead not only to disengagement but to disillusionment about politics in general.

Since it is prohibitively expensive to run a campaign, the Citizen United decision has strengthened the umbilical cord between elected officials and their financial backers. When corporations and wealthy individuals finance the campaign of a candidate, they are not engaging in charity, their contributions are an investment. Therefore, their large funding would assure that a large block in the Congress, mostly Republicans, would continue to have a Pavlovian response to their demands, which tend to consist of low tax and deregulation. To force Congress to focus more on the public interest rather than the interests of their financial benefactors, the public would have to provide the lion share of campaign funding. Hence, public financing of campaigns would be a critical step in helping sever this tie that allows the 1% to exert so much control over elected officials.