Most Americans Aren't Occupy Wall Street's '99 Percent'

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The Occupy Wall Street movement purports to speak for all but the mega-rich, but it doesn't

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For a protest to be successful, it needs widespread support. Numbers matter, so recruiting people who believe in your cause is essential. The Occupy Wall Street movement actually has a pretty clever way of trying to convince people to join its fight: it informs people that they already, unknowingly, support its mission. It does this by saying that it represents the "99 percent" of Americans who aren't ultra-rich. But does it really speak for all of these people?

Who Are the 99 percent?

The OWS movement's slogan has been popularized by a "wearethe99percent" tumblr, consisting of about 700 pictures of people holding up signs about why they're angry with the system. Its sidebar reads:

We are the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we're working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent.

Does this really describe 99% of Americans?

Let's look at some of these claims:

  • Foreclosure activity may affect somewhere in the ballpark of 10% of U.S. households. That's a tragically high percentage, to be sure. But it's no where near 99%.
  • 15% of Americans live below the poverty line. That's clearly far too high a percentage, but again, it's a small minority.
  • Before last year's Affordable Care Act, about 30 million Americans were uninsured, which is roughly 10% of the population. Of course, with the new law in place that number should approach zero.
  • I have no idea how to quantify how many people are suffering from environmental pollution, but I strongly suspect if you got 100 people in a room and asked them, 99 would not say pollution is a huge problem in their lives.
  • Wage growth certainly has been weaker than would be ideal, but 87.5% of Americans are satisfied with their jobs, according to Gallup. The underemployment rate is 16.2%.

Philosophical Differences

So clearly, not nearly a majority of Americans are accounted for in those conditions listed, but OWS would probably argue for a broader definition of dissatisfaction, which its last sentence may encapsulate. Do 99% of people really feel they are "getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything"? I find this highly unlikely.

What the OWS either fails to grasp or refuses to admit is that most Americans genuinely like the current system. They believe in capitalism. They are okay with the arrangement that some people can get much richer than others, even if that means wealth inequality. Ultimately, they believe that the incentive to work hard and innovate is worth the tradeoff of having some people who are much wealthier than others.

For example, imagine if Steve Jobs had an equal incentive to become a bus driver and the founder and CEO of a major technology company. The former is a nine-to-five job, with relatively less stress (I am not saying that being a bus-driver I stress-free -- just that being the CEO of a giant company is more stressful). The latter requires taking huge risks, living in the public eye, and probably significant personal sacrifice for professional success. Of course, it also takes a unique talent to succeed.

The current system encourages people to use their talents to the fullest, and their doing so benefits everyone. The other 99% is getting something -- the benefit of the other 1% using their talents and abilities to push forward the entire nation. While all workers play some part in economic activity, it's the innovation and technological advances that make significant progress possible.

For that reason, a majority of Americans support some form of progressive taxation, but not a system that is punitive to the rich. Of course, we've already got a progressive tax code under which those with higher incomes pay more. Moreover, taxing the rich alone cannot suddenly create a socialist utopia, even in theory -- they're just not that rich.

The Best Possible Outcome for OWS

This is why so many mainstream progressive groups will try to co-opt the OWS movement, much like the original Tea Party was co-opted by the mainstream conservative movement. Fringe views can be shouted loudly for dramatic effect, but they cannot contribute constructively to the political process.

In 2008, Democrats managed to succeed by energizing their base and appealing to moderate voters. As they found during the 2010 elections, however, those moderates aren't particularly sympathetic to very progressive ideas. Instead of embracing the big health care reform bill they worked so hard for, the voters chastised them over it with drastic change in the balance of power in the House of Representatives.

Progressives can continue to attempt to sway moderates by showing them why their views might be better than conservative ideas. But hoping to push for very fundamental changes won't work. The capitalist, limited-government philosophy is held too dear by most Americans for them to embrace the OWS movement's original principles. That's why most will not consider themselves a part of the OWS's "99 percent."

Image Credit: David Shankbone/Flickr

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.
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