A hand-made sign at the Occupy Boston encampment in Dewey Square asks: “Cardinal O’Malley, Where Are You?”
The same might be asked of our leaders on Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill, whose timidity has so far led them to
keep a safe distance between their carefully manicured political images and the grungy, Woodstock-era look of Occupy Boston, which embraces a populism, spontaneity and political theater they likely fear will not play well with middle America.
But those same elected representatives cannot afford to be indifferent about the movement’s message, which very much has to do with the economic concerns and anxieties of average voters.
The Occupy movement is remarkable by many measures, including the racial and social diversity of its open and expanding membership, and prompts obvious comparisons to the Tea Party movement that has dominated American political discourse in variously loud, simplistic and misleading ways.
The long list of injustices wrought by a government beholden to corporate and special interests. The ever- increasing inequality gap between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots. Growing unemployment, poverty and economic insecurity. The class warfare being waged in our political discourse. These are among the reasons so many are camping out in tents in Boston and so many other cities around the world.
Give the Occupy movement credit for helping to steer American political discourse back toward the middle. For too long, angry voices on the right have been setting an agenda that seeks to rip the social safety net into tatters while it props up tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, corporate personhood and financial elitism.
The challenge for the left is that the Tea Party took an immediate interest in political empowerment, helping to elect people like Scott Brown as the miscast and unjust replacement for liberal lion Teddy Kennedy, and encouraging the kind of social divisiveness that demonizes the afflicted and comforts the comfortable.
Compared to the agenda-driven Tea Party, the Occupy movement so far has no political program, no clear political aspirations. There is no modern-day equivalent of a Port Huron statement, no Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. No interest in engaging in the electoral process, no agenda for affecting public policy or electing effective leaders.
Nor is there the equivalent of right-wing politicians pandering to the Tea Party faithful and leveraging that movement for political gain.
Kudos to Gov. Deval Patrick for strolling over to Dewey Square at one point without his handlers in tow to see the Occupy encampment for himself. That was brave compared to other Democratic leaders who have stayed away and kept silent about a remarkably organized, articulate and growing political force to be reckoned with. With the “Make Out Not War” signs and anti-Wall Street rhetoric, the Occupy backdrop may seem an inconvenient photo-op to the John Kerry-style status quo Democrats, who prefer the safe and the predictable.
But however unappealing the images of disheveled tent dwellers camping out across from the Federal Reserve building, the Occupy demonstrators have a message that matters to and resonates with average, working-class Americans. That message needs to be heard and picked up and carried into the political arena by those who aspire to be our leaders.