The Arab Spring brought hope to the Middle East and North Africa. People took to the street to protest autocratic if not dictatorial rule, many using social networks with a prominent role for the young. In Athens, Madrid and London, people took to the street to protest chronic unemployment, many using social networks as well with a prominent role for the young. Where has the United States been in all of this given its similar situation of millions unemployed? The jobless rate for high school graduates now stands at over 20%.
While the protests of the late 1960's focused on the Vietnam War and civil rights, the recent populist Occupy Wall Street movement is focusing on the distribution of wealth. With official unemployment figures continuing to hover at 9%, people are protesting against the concentration of wealth associated with Wall Street's financial center. The Government bailed out large firms and banks too big to fail, but the tax money spent on them has not yet trickled down to the middle or lower classes. The TARP program has not led to increased lending or job creation while financers continue to receive huge salaries and bonuses.
What began as a small protest movement in New York three weeks ago has spread to Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston and looks to be catching in other major cities as well as outside the U.S. Little formal organization is involved, with social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google playing a major role. No political party is in the lead, although some labor leaders seem to be joining the movement.
It is fascinating to compare this movement with those of the 1960's. There is no clear leadership now, no Tom Hayden, Mark Rudd or Mario Savio. There is no clear organization like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) or ideological statements like the Port Huron document. There are no clear objectives either such as end the war in Vietnam or desegregation. There is anger at the radical inequality in the distribution of wealth; there is anger at the failure of the government to create jobs; and there is anger at the Wall Street firms for their inability to deal with the realities of Middle America.
For the moment, neither the Republicans nor Democrats have reacted. No candidate has come forward within the two established parties like Eugene McCarthy with the Democrats; no third party movement has started. With the election of 2012 on the horizon, it is not yet clear how this grass roots movement will play into traditional two party politics. The Tea Party has become a major player moving the Republican Party to the right. Barack Obama's Democratic Party is long past being inclusive of populism. It is fascinating to see how a populist movement is developing in the United States after the Arab Spring and European demonstrations. In 1968, it was the other way around.
October 10, 2011