Monday, October 24, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: Public Policy or Just A Public Spectacle?

By Richard A. Lee

More than a month has passed since an assortment of people of different ages and different backgrounds first gathered in a park in New York City’s Wall Street financial district because a common concern about America’s disparity in wealth and its impact on their quality of life.

Since then, Occupy Wall Street has become a much-discussed and debated topic -- first on social media pages and eventually by mainstream news outlets. The movement also has grown with increasing numbers of participants not only in New York, but all across the nation and even beyond its borders. It also has become campaign fodder for America’s most powerful politicians.

What Occupy Wall Street has yet to accomplish, however, is to have a concrete impact on public policy.

No political leaders – Democrats or Republicans – have been so moved by the demonstrations that they have taken bold actions to address the protesters’ concerns. Meanwhile, Wall Street continues to go about its business unaffected by the constant presence of the Occupy Wall Street crowds. For the financial executives who earn their livings in lower Manhattan – and for many other Americans – Occupy Wall Street is just a spectacle; it is not a political force. Likewise, for the media, much of the coverage has focused on arrests, violence and poor health conditions at the demonstration sites instead of the factors that spawned the movement and its growth.

Media outlets also have drawn comparisons between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movement, which added a stronger conservative voice to the American political scene in 2009. But unless Occupy Wall Street impacts public policy, the protests cannot be equated with the Tea Party.

In fairness, when the Tea Party was as young as Occupy Wall Street, its influence on public policy was minimal at best. But that changed over the past two years.

The Tea Party fielded candidates for Congress and other elective offices in 2010. In some GOP primaries, its members defeated established candidates who ran with the party’s official backing. Tea Party candidates experienced less success in the general election in November, but the base they built moved the Republican Party further to the right – and those who did win election to Congress have become a force that cannot be ignored whenever important legislation is in need of votes.

For example, Tea Party candidate Anna Little won a hotly contested GOP primary in New Jersey’s sixth congressional district last year and then waged an aggressive campaign in the general election against Frank Pallone, a Democrat with more than 20 years of experience in Congress. When the votes were counted, Pallone had won by a comfortable margin, but the strong challenge from Little – coming in a year in which the GOP regained control of the House – most likely forced him to ramp up his campaign a notch or two.

Tea Party candidates also made their presence known in New Jersey’s seventh congressional district, where incumbent Republican Leonard Lance faced challengers from the right during the GOP primary. Lance emerged victorious in the primary – in part because his challengers split the vote – and went on to win re-election in November.

In addition, the Tea Party figured as an oddity of sorts in the state’s third district congressional race, where Democratic operatives reportedly backed a Tea Party candidate in an attempt to draw votes away from the Jon Runyan, the Republican on the ballot. The strategy failed to work as Runyon defeated incumbent Democrat John Adler.

A year from now, will Occupy Wall Street be fielding candidates for Congress and U.S. Senate as the Tea Party did in 2010? My guess is that such a scenario is unlikely, but anything can happen in year’s time in politics.

An Occupy Wall Street presence on the ballot could produce several benefits. It would give the movement greater credibility and influence, much like the Tea Party benefited from its involvement in the 2010 campaign. It also would give the Democratic Party a much-needed wakeup call – just as the Tea Party did for the GOP.

In turn, American voters would benefit too. With Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party candidates on the ballot, voters no longer would have their options limited to political parties and candidates who largely have become out-of-touch. Instead, they would have an opportunity to cast votes for people – both on the left and the right -- who share their issues and concerns, as well as their anger and frustration.

And isn’t that the way democracy should work?

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Richard A. Lee spent more than 30 years as a journalist and government communications professional in New Jersey. He now is an assistant professor in the Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Bonaventure University near Olean, N.Y. Read more of Rich's columns at richleeonline and follow him on Twitter.