A participant in the Wall Street protests holds up a sign in New York City.… (Spencer Platt / Getty Images )
Those who think that the ongoing Occupy Wall Street movement is just a traffic annoyance with nowhere to go should remember that the same was said at one time about protest movements around the world throughout history, including the tea party movement in the United States.
In the nation’s capital, progressives on Monday kicked off their “Take Back the American Dream” conference at which the almost month-old Occupy Wall Street movement was one of the topics of discussion. Over the weekend, demonstrations of one sort or another were held in at least half a dozen cities, including New York, where 700 were arrested. No place seems immune, and even in Washington, a group called OccupyKSt has called for demonstrations this week against the avenue associated with big lobbying firms.
Nationally, the recent demonstrations likely had no more than several thousand supporters, but when protests began almost a month ago, the numbers were probably no higher than in the dozens. By any standard, that is a high rate of growth and yet another symptom of just how unhappy the American public has become with its political system as the economy continues to be in a sorry state.
The protests are also a symptom of just how quickly the new social media tools, Twitter among them, have propelled what would have been small, unheeded demonstrations into national prominence in the United States. The Arab spring, the Iranian protest and other demonstrations showed how social media can make a political difference in other countries. The occupy movement is the most recent example of how the computer has changed the politics of this nation.
Many societies, including the United States, have seen this type of scenario before. The tea party movement began with a lot of anger at the political system that was fed by cable television and some politicians and institutions.
The current round is no different. Polls show perhaps four out of five Americans are unhappy with the political system, which is seen as ineffective in dealing with domestic issues such as the economy. The anger seems to be directed everywhere, but especially at Congress, though President Obama’s approval ratings have also fallen sharply since he took office.
In a political system with so much anger sloshing around, it is hardly surprising that some on the right -- and the left -- would look for targets. Conservatives, including some of the candidates running for the GOP presidential nomination, have attacked central government, federal economic stimulus efforts and tax reform proposed by Democrats as a new type of class war. Led by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, some Republicans have also singled out the Federal Reserve for special attack.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article had Texas Gov. Rick Perry's first name as Rock.
Progressives, including trade unions and some mainstream politicians, too were seeking a voice, especially since, from their perspective, the White House is more of a distant cousin than a solid ally. When students began to settle into Zuccotti Park, a plaza near Wall Street, the decentralized protests continued to attract people and support until this last weekend’s arrests.
In general, the groups, which now have had demonstrations in Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston, blame Wall Street greed for the nation’s economic woes, including an unemployment rate of more than 9%. That is usually coupled with a call to clean up the political system, which they say is corrupted by big lobbyists and a virulent partisanship that prevents many actions. Demands are as loose and ill-defined as the leadership.
But history shows that successful -- and unsuccessful -- movements begin as an angry shout in the streets. The next step is when political figures will try to capitalize on it.