It's been a good year for the 1 percent.
The protesters who occupied public spaces in cities across the country, beginning with Wall Street on Sept. 17, 2011, garnered a great deal of attention for the idea that our democracy is being hijacked by the wealthy and powerful for the purpose of expanding their wealth and power. But any fair analysis of what has happened in the current electoral campaign would suggest that the wealthy have more power than ever, and they're not shy about using it.
On the very same day as the one-year anniversary of the first Occupy protest, the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about Chicago billionaire Joe Ricketts' plan to spend $10 million of his fortune on advertisements supporting Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and another $2 million on ads supporting GOP congressional candidates. And he's not alone, or even exceptional. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who along with his wife spent $21.5 million to support Newt Gingrich's presidential run, has said he is willing to spend as much as $100 million in the effort to defeat President Barack Obama.
Although Republicans have generally been the winners in the big-money game, it hasn't been because the Democrats aren't trying. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently left his post as a top official in the president's re-election campaign so that he could instead concentrate on fundraising for the pro-Obama Super PAC, Priorities USA Action. And the New York Times reported last week that, although Mr. Obama was famous for his reliance on small donors in 2008, big-money bundlers are increasingly crucial to his re-election bid — and they're getting better access to the president and top administration officials.
The Occupy protests were famously long on passion and short on identifiable agenda. The tea party movement, to which Occupy was frequently compared, quickly translated its animating idea — a belief that government had gotten too big — into distinct policy and electoral goals. Not so, Occupy. The movement displayed an institutional ambivalence to doing anything more than consciousness-raising, and the consensus-based decision-making model it employed, while laudable, inhibited the development of an agenda. Moreover, too much effort was spent on establishing and maintaining the public encampments and defending them against city governments' eventual efforts to remove them.
The movement has not completely fizzled since the public protests ended. In Baltimore, for example, Occupiers have focused on applying the animating spirit of the protests to local issues. Recently, Occupy members rallied against Under Armour's request for a tax increment financing deal for the expansion of its corporate campus and in support of those trying to establish a union at the Baltimore Hyatt Regency. A number of groups have formed as offshoots of the protests, including Occupy our Homes, which seeks to help those at risk of foreclosure, and Another BDC Is Possible, which is seeking reforms to the Baltimore Development Corp. Occupiers continue to hold meetings in Baltimore and have forged connections with a variety of other activist groups here.
But the sense that the Occupy movement might galvanize a broad majority to change a political and economic system that favors the few has largely faded away, at least in the short term. The protests captured headlines around the world for months last year, but the movement's influence on the presidential campaign is subtle. President Obama's continued push for higher taxes on the wealthy fits in with the Occupy theme, as do the attacks on Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital — some of which even surfaced during the Republican primaries. But there is little chance that the Occupy movement will play the role in 2012 that the tea party did in 2010.
Rather, it is the 1 percent, in the form of Super PAC donors and contribution bundlers, who are having the most direct impact on how this year's election unfolds. That is a direct rebuke to the legacy of Occupy — but perhaps also a call to arms.
There is a chance that the kinds of activities Occupy Baltimore alumni are pursuing will eventually lead to a new coalescence of Occupy as a national movement. But if there is an issue that could reanimate Occupy now — and bring many more Americans onto its side — it is the effort to eliminate the gross distortion that unlimited campaign spending is inflicting on our democracy. Reversing the Citizens United ruling that led to the rise of the Super PAC would almost certainly require a constitutional amendment, and as long as the two major parties are locked in trench warfare, that will be impossible. It would take a mass movement outside of the nation's existing political structure to make it happen, and that is what Occupy can and should be.