Hacker & Pierson Respond to Occupy Wall Street

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The Moyers & Company interview with Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson was recorded on the same day the Occupy Wall Street protest began in Zuccotti Park. We asked them to tell us whether they were surprised by the protests, what they think of the movement and what they see as the protesters’ biggest challenges. Below are their answers.

Paul Pierson: It has been fascinating to watch the development of Occupy Wall Street in recent months. One of the main themes of Winner-Take-All Politics is that organization makes a huge difference in politics. Ordinary citizens are currently at a big disadvantage because, especially with respect to economic issues, they have less and less organized presence in our political system.

Occupy Wall Street - Unions in Zuccotti Park

Members of Local 100 of the Transport Workers enter Zuccotti Park in support of the Wall Street protestors on Friday, Sept. 30, 2011, in New York. (AP Photo/Louis Lanzano)

Absent organization, voters can express outrage, but they have a much harder time establishing accountability, especially because powerful actors know how to avoid leaving fingerprints in the very direct, immediate and visible ways that voters might pick up on. If voters can’t determine whom to hold accountable, politicians are free to respond to powerful organized interests. You end up in a world where voters reward the wrong people, where the Republican leader in the House, John Boehner, could simultaneously tell voters in 2010 that he opposed new financial regulations because they would help the banks, even as he was going directly to the banking lobby and asking them to pony up campaign cash because it was the GOP that was standing up for the banks.

Jacob Hacker: Poll after poll shows that the basic claims of the OWS movement were and remain popular. In mid-December, for example, 48 percent of Americans agreed with the “concerns raised by the protests,” compared with 30 percent who disagreed, and more than three-quarters (77%) agreed that “there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations.” Given what we show in our book, the resonance of OWS’s broad message should not be so surprising. Nonetheless, the protesters were quite effective in drawing attention to the growing gap between the rich and the rest, and reminding us of the lack of real accountability on Wall Street after the financial crisis.

Pierson: OWS has also had a big impact on the agenda, which is a crucial part of politics. We are spending less time talking about the deficit (which was and is being used to promote policies that would make many of our core challenges worse). This is a huge success, and in a way it smacks of ingratitude to ask for anything more. BUT, we know that influencing government is a complex and long-term challenge — again, the key message of our book. The issue now is whether OWS, or something that emerges out of the space it created, can generate sustained, focused pressure on political elites.

I confess I’m a little doubtful. The Tea Party has made this shift, becoming a powerful force of discipline on GOP politicians and pushing them ever further to the right (something I wouldn’t have thought possible a few years ago). OWS seems, frankly, too estranged from the slow, brick-by-brick efforts of “normal politics” to engage in the electoral and party-influencing efforts that will be necessary. The novelty of OWS is wearing off, and its portrayals in the media are becoming more negative. A movement to reinvigorate what Jacob and I call “middle class democracy” will need to draw on the insights and passions of Occupy Wall Street, but it will take time to build, and it will require sustained engagement with the messy, compromised world of electoral politics.

Hacker: I agree that grassroots organizing will have to transform into serious organization building and continuing policy advocacy. Flexible participatory modes and a clear target (Wall Street) helped OWS gain initial traction. Yet the movement has not articulated a set of reform demands, nor has it set down organizational roots of any depth.

All of the problems that OWS highlighted—stagnant incomes for most Americans, a continuing jobs crisis, runaway college debt—ultimately come back to the failure of our democracy to represent the broad middle class. Political reform is therefore essential and long overdue. As we say in our book, however, the Catch-22 of political reform is that we must fix a badly broken political system through…a badly broken political system. That is a monumental challenge, and it will take time to overcome. Still, it is not insurmountable. For one, it has been done before—during the Progressive Era and the New Deal reforms of the “long 1960s” (stretching, as we show in the book, well in the 1970s). For another, our current mess is deeply at odds with a core tenet of the American creed, the faith that a vibrant market economy can co-exist with a vibrant civic democracy in which the voices of the people are not drowned out by the insistent demands of moneyed interests.

Restoring that faith will require long-term vision. And it will require more than electoral victories. It will require durable changes in taxation, in rules governing unions, in the regulation of executive pay, and in the policing of Wall Street. To achieve these enduring shifts, reformers who share the concerns raised by the OWS protesters need to seek political as well as policy transformations. They need to make it easier to update regulations to prevent corporate and Wall Street self-dealing in a rapidly changing marketplace. They need to increase the transparency of what government does and empower groups that represent the broad public so that organized narrow interests cannot simply write the rules for themselves. And above all, they need to seek measures—like more robust campaign finance rules (which, yes, have been crippled by Citizens United) and lobbying restrictions—that decrease the translation of money into power.

So if I were to say one word to the protestors—hopefully, with more success than the old guy in The Graduate who tells Dustin Hoffman “plastics” — that word would be “organization.” Middle-class democracy rested on organizations, such as unions and civic groups, that helped middle-class voters understand what was at stake in policy debates and had political leverage to influence the outcomes. On pocketbook economic issues, those groups are dead, dying or endangered. And with their fall, popular disaffection and distrust of government has flourished. Unless ties linking reform-minded leaders inside Washington to popular movements and mass organizations are forged anew, middle-class democracy will continue to recede into our civic past.


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