Occupy, Obama and Buffett

American political history has always run on two parallel tracks, movement politics and electoral politics. We have a long and distinguished history of movement politics made up of grassroots upsurges, intellectual ferment and street activity. These movements have spawned electoral politics where public officials adopt the ideas and goals of the movement and make them the core of election campaigns. Owen Lovejoy and John Brown gave us Abe Lincoln, Big Bill Haywood and Eugene Victor Debs gave us Franklin Roosevelt, Carrie Nation and Victoria Woodhull gave us Bella Abzug; Dr. King and Malcolm X gave us Lyndon Johnson and so on.

The same thing is happening today, as Occupy Wall Street continues to change the map of American electoral politics. It’s the first time the dynamic has played out in the new high-tech world of the Internet and cell phones. The technological revolution has changed, for the better, the way grassroots movements reach the American people. OWS, as powerful as it has been, has been the least violent and disruptive movement in American history, and the least organized. No martyrs, no leaders, few marches and demonstrations, just a quintessentially American idea: The government and the society should operate in the interests of the majority of the people, not the majority of the dollars.

The icons of a leaderless movement are often bizarre, when thought of in conventional terms. No one has symbolized the privileges of the 1% and the burden on the 99% better than the richest man in America, Warren Buffett. Whether by intention or happy accident, his public comparison between his tax rate and that of his secretary resonated with the political class, the chattering class and eventually with the American public.

Here comes Obama. I don’t doubt his sincerity, but just a year ago he was a president floundering for a message upon which to base a campaign for re-election. What started at Zuccotti Park morphed into worldwide demonstrations. Obama precisely and carefully seized upon the convulsion. He started with his Kansas/Teddy Roosevelt speech about malefactors of great wealth; he called out the Republicans for Social Darwinism; now he campaigns explicitly for enactment of the Buffett Rule. He has his idea and he’s running with it.

For some there is resentment against a late-comer using these ideas for the purpose of re-election. That’s a little ahistorical for my taste. This is the genius of the American political process. In spite of all the idiocies and unfairness, in spite of the impact of corporate wealth on campaigns and public opinion, elected leaders still have the capacity to translate mass movements into things that people can vote for.

As Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis said, “We can have a democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” Good for Obama, and good for Buffett, and especially good for OWS. The 2012 election is turning into a referendum on the consequences of concentrated wealth and power on American democracy. Just as it should.

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