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Lincoln Mitchell on Occupy Wall Street

Lincoln Mitchell is an Associate Research Scholar at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.  Before joining Columbia’s faculty, Lincoln was a practitioner of political development and continues to work in that field now.  In addition to serving as Chief of Party for the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Georgia from 2002-2004, Lincoln has worked on political development issues in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.  Lincoln also worked for years as a political consultant in New York City advising and managing domestic political campaigns.  

Lincoln Mitchell

Dr. Mitchell’s current research includes work on US-Georgia relations, political development in the former Soviet Union, and the role of democracy promotion in American foreign policy.  His book Uncertain Democracy: US Foreign Policy and Georgia’s Rose Revolution was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2008.  Another book, The Color Revolutions, also from the University of Pennsylvania Press will be out in 2012. MItchell has written articles on these topics in The National Interest, Orbis, The Moscow Times, the Washington Quarterly, The American Interest, Survival, the Central Asian Survey, The New York Daily News and Current History as well as for numerous online publications including the online sections of The Washington Post and the New York Times and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Transitions Online.    Lincoln has been quoted extensively in most major American, Georgian and Russian newspapers and appeared on numerous television and radio programs and podcasts including Fox and Friends, All Things Considered, Lou Dobbs, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, ABC Nightline, the Diane Rehm Show, Up and In: The Baseball Prospectus Podcast, The BBC as well as in Russian and Georgian television.  Lincoln is also a frequent blogger on The Huffington Post where he writes primarily about domestic politics in the US and on The Faster Times where he writes about US Foreign Policy and baseball.  Lincoln earned his Ph.D from Columbia University’s department of political science in 1996.  

More than anything, Occupy Wall Street has occupied valuable airtime on CNN, Fox News, and other high caliber American news outlets that could better be utilized to play disturbing videos of Qaddafi being tortured in broad daylight, or clips of Rick Perry and Mitt Romney debating who hates illegal immigrant day workers more. The movement has also sparked an intense discussion in this country on economic inequality and the failings of American democracy. This conversation isn’t quite as exciting, so the news will hopefully figure out a way to kill it off soon enough. For now, The Daily Autocrat sat down to ask Dr. Lincoln Mitchell of Columbia University why electing Obama didn’t solve the nation’s problems or at least shut everyone up for the next 100 years.

TDA: Dr. Mitchell, in a recent piece on the Occupy Wall Street movement for The Huffington Post, you pointed to the Obama administration as a source of the powerlessness and hopelessness felt by many of the protesters. Obama was giving so much hope away in 2008–most of it for free. Where has all of it gone? Does someone have all of it?

LM: I don’t think too many people are looking at the president as a source of hope, on either side of the political aisle. People are looking at the president and saying “My God, he’s better than the opposition—better than the options.” And that will be a major force in the elections.

There are a lot of interesting things about Occupy Wall Street. One of the most interesting things is that they are bringing up economic issues—and political issues, but really economic issues–that have been largely ignored and are glaringly obvious: the discrepancy between the wealthy and poor; the incomes of people on Wall Street compared to the stagnant incomes of many Americans. And these are issues Obama has not addressed in his presidency. So the sense that Wall Street really screwed us in the years leading up to the crash and that they have not been held responsible—these are issues that have simply not been addressed by the Obama presidency, and that is what led to a dissipation of hope, which is now being articulated by these new political forces—this social movement—down on Wall Street. I think the movement has arisen out of a sense of hopelessness and frustration with the Obama administration.

There are a lot of people to blame for what went wrong in the economy. And it’s wrong to just blame Wall Street, but it’s wrong to not blame Wall Street. And it’s wrong to just blame the politicians, but it’s also wrong to not blame the politicians. And frankly, this 99% and 1% rhetoric is a bit dangerous. More than 1% of us benefited during the bubble and I didn’t see a lot of people running around saying “Gee, I wish I didn’t have this high paying job in the real estate sector; I know it’s not right.” And 99% of us aren’t homeless and going paycheck to paycheck—it’s not that dire—but the basic point is legit.

TDA: If this is an issue of economics, as you say, what will it take for it to rise above partisanship and ideology—because these delightful elements always tend to trump everything.

LM: It’s very interesting. I was just thinking about this, because look: we have two parties in this country. We have a right wing party and a center right party. And the right wing party has banged its fist on the table, metaphorically speaking, for the last 30 years and has led a charge of class warfare of the wealthy against the poor. And they have done this by constantly calling for greater tax cuts for the wealthy. They’ve done it by constantly cutting programs for the poor. And they have created a kind of rhetorical propaganda around it, so that anyone who says “Well, maybe people should be treated fairly,” is called a communist or a socialist, as we saw happened to Obama when he said “Maybe it’s a problem that millions of people don’t have health care,” and they said “You’re a communist”.  They’ve done this very powerfully and for a whole lot of reasons. You have another party that has really not done much about it—has not fought back as much as it could have. In fact, as presidencies go, the Clinton presidency was competent but not exactly progressive on economic issues, and the Obama presidency has shown itself to be the same.

And now we have an interesting situation, because coming into a presidential election it’s very easy to know what to say if you’re Mitt Romney. If I were advising Mitt Romney—and I say Romney because he is the Republican nominee and the rest is a sideshow—I would say you should attack these people, call them ‘dirty hippies,’ and use language like ‘class warfare’ and ‘irresponsible politics’ –that’s normal, that’s what Republicans say. Romney’s political agenda is to make his rich friends richer and I understand that. I’m not going to vote for that, but I understand that that’s his agenda and he’s acting accordingly.

“The movement has arisen out of a sense of hopelessness and frustration with the Obama administration”

But Obama is in a different situation. What’s interesting is that on the one side of the aisle there’s an open seat—on the Republican side. But on the other side there is not—we know who the Democratic nominee is. If there were a left wing candidate running against Obama, it would be easy for him. Obama would triangulate, as the Clintonists would say. He would say “They’re the crazies. Now, look at me”. The problem is that such a candidate hasn’t emerged. So Obama can’t reject these people just for the heck of it.

On the other hand, there are a lot of people who really believe what the people in Occupy Wall Street are saying—there are a lot of people who vote for Obama and who believe what those people are saying is right. So he has to address this somehow. I was on a radio show in Atlanta and the host asked me why Obama isn’t down there with a blow horn rallying the people. I explained that if Obama went down there with a blow horn, they would boo him. On the other hand, he needs their votes. He knows—at least he better know—that they’re right. But how do you act on that after three and a half years of a presidency that was very uninspired on these issues?

TDA: Coming back to Republicans—will they really be able to get away with disparaging the movement? Because if it is indeed a case of economics, and therefore crosses lines of partisanship and ideology, wouldn’t that put Republicans in a similar position?

LM: I’m looking at this as an analyst, not as a Republican strategist, but if I were a Republican strategist I would say attack the movement now because if it gets too big because when it gets too big, you’re screwed. You want to strangle it in the cradle. This anger from the Tea Party—and I know it’s unpopular to say—was channeled largely through bigoted sentiments and, to use a quaint term, ‘red-baiting’ and fear-mongering. But there was real anger there, and the Republicans very smartly channeled the anger towards big government, but I think your average Tea-Partier is angry at government and at Wall Street, so now the Occupy Wall Street movement comes along, and as soon as some people start saying, “Well, I can take both sides: I think taxes are too high and I think the people on Wall Street should go to jail”—if people start to believe both those things at the same time–I think the Republicans are screwed.

If you look at some of the data, it may be that there only a small amount of people are down there relatively speaking, but they have much bigger support than the Tea Party right now–certainly in New York state, where a majority agrees with them. On one hand it could eventually just become a left equivalent of the Tea Party, which becomes a constituent part of the Democratic Party, and maybe takes it over the way the Tea Party has taken over the Republican Party. Or it could grow to something beyond that as it spreads to labor unions and to local elected officials. At some point, you could see it grow into something where middle class Americans; those who are working in blue collar jobs in the service sector; people who are seniors who are retired and worried about their income; people worried about their kids are walking around wearing a pin that says “We are the 99%”. Then the Republicans are really in trouble.

TDA: Let’s talk about what Obama could do differently, because economically, as you have said, it hasn’t been a very progressive presidency. If Obama does win a second term, will the Occupy Wall Street movement have an impact on the direction of  policy?

LM: It’s hard to say. You have to keep in mind that if you look back at presidents who had two terms, regardless of party—George W. Bush, Clinton, Reagan, even going back to Eisenhower—very little gets done in the second term. And the reason is that you rarely have big enough majorities. You are not going to have this moment again. Clinton in 1993 and Obama in 2009 came in with big majorities in both houses of Congress—you’re not going to have that again. So Obama’s ability to legislate actively is gone. So, will he better on some of this stuff? Yes, I can see a second term Obama presidency where rhetorically he gets it right, but the likelihood of that leading to real policy—to legislative changes—is not likely.

“If I were advising Mitt Romney, I would say you should attack these people–call them dirty hippies”

On the other hand, there are things you can do in the Attorney General’s office, where you can go after people more—there are things you can do, but the moment of sweeping change is when parties switch, and someone gets in there for the first time with his party. If Romney wins with Republican majorities in both houses, then we could see a real movement—probably, in my view, in the wrong direction. The moment on the Democratic side was January 2009. That’s why that was such a sad thing, because it was really a rare opportunity. It doesn’t come along often.

TDA: Do you think that the opportunity was squandered because of external elements—because of Republicans—or do you think it’s indicative of a more structural, systematic deficiency that doesn’t allow for many other options?

LM: That’s a tough question. I think that Obama made some miscalculations. We knew the Republicans hated him. Don’t run for president as a Democrat if you think Republicans are going to like you. But, you know, he allowed himself to get into this unmistakable “I need to get 60 votes in the Senate to get anything done.” And that was impossible. It doesn’t have to be that way. There are legislative tricks you can use to get around it. For Obama, there was almost a sense that the presidency’s popularity was so special, that he didn’t want to roll up his sleeves and get down in the trenches and fight for what he might have believed in.

Protesters in the park, displaying their laziness and hippiness by demanding responsive government.

Secondly, compromise was elevated as a value all in itself—a stand-alone value. So, on the health care bill he got a compromise but he got a terrible bill (You notice that no one is even talking about the health care bill, as if it’s not even significant anymore). The story was that “I got a compromise,” instead of “I won”. And it turns out he’s a very poor negotiator, which is something we didn’t know about him. He starts a negotiation where he should finish it. He did it on health care; he did it on the debt ceiling; he did it on the Bush tax cuts. He did it over and over again. And that has hurt his presidency.

And the last thing: he allowed this discussion of the debt to become the dominant issue. The dominant issues coming into January 2009 were largely the same issues people are talking about today downtown: income inequality, unemployment, and economic uncertainty. And he made the issues health care and debt. Health care is linked to those economic issues, but he didn’t link it. And the debt is a Republican issue. Most serious economists will tell you when the economy is in the toilet, that’s when you borrow money. Money is cheap and it puts people to work and you can pay it back when you get the economy back on its feet.

TDA: The explanations you are offering largely center on Obama’s strategy. I think someone from Occupy Wall Street might say, “Well, the Obama presidency also didn’t work because the system is fixed to serve certain powerful forces who drive policy, so essentially even if Obama had been a better negotiator, nothing could have happened anyway, because the people who are bankrolling his presidency are seeking the same outcome as the people bankrolling the other side—”

LM: I think where that plays itself out more is in Senate and House committees. No one told Obama he had to staff his economic team with Wall Street insiders. He really didn’t have to do that. Obama raised a lot of money from labor unions. The Democratic Party—affluent, liberal white people, which along with African Americans form the backbone of the Party—gave a lot of money to Obama for a variety of reasons. Some people, for instance, gave Obama money because they were pro-choice; some gave Obama money because they thought he would be better than the other guy on marriage equality; some were against the war in Iraq. There are all kinds of reasons why people gave Obama money. The impact of the finance sector in a presidential election is much smaller than people think, but where it plays itself out I think is in Congress—and there the cards are very much stacked against Obama.

But to say that he did this because he is in the pockets of Wall Street almost disempowers Obama more. He was empowered to do things differently and he didn’t.

TDA: What does Occupy Wall Street mean for the future of the progressive left, for the presidency, for the future of politics in this country? Will there be any impact at all?

LM: The answer is that we don’t know. There is a range of outcomes. One outcome is that two months down the road we’ve forgotten about it. It gets cold, it rains a lot, some other issue emerges somewhere that gets everyone’s attention; Bloomberg handles it right, Obama makes a few speeches, and it dwindles. Another possibility is that it becomes a story about policy brutality; Bloomberg snaps. A third outcome is that it becomes part of the political scenery, the way the Tea Party has.

“The movement is not in the business of writing legislation. That’s not what social movements do”

And the fourth outcome is that it is truly transformative–and I wouldn’t rule that out–the same way that the battery of movements—the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay and lesbian liberation movement in the 1960s—changed America into a much more tolerant, diverse country. This could have the potential to do the same thing for economic issues. It could change America into a country where we actually talk about economic issues differently. And that’s the potential, but it’s not there yet.

TDA: But throughout history, in general, progressive movements like these have not really had anything to do with economics—

LM: They have rarely had anything to do with economics. The exception is the 1930s. And that’s what everyone forgets. The movements of the 1930s, during the depression, were probably the most analogous movements. You had widespread labor movements, economic–based protests and demonstrations. People were desperate. So if you look at that, there is the potential. There is some precedent for it. But it is rare.

TDA: Would you say that until inequality lessens in the country, that this is here to stay–that the movement might be a permanent symptom?

LM: Yes, but the Occupy Wall Street movement can become a political force that gives members of Congress confidence to do the right thing. Right now, no one is saying “Raise taxes on the rich” in a serious way. No one [in Congress] is making a cogent, cohesive argument to do that. But we’re moving towards doing that. Now members of Congress may be able to say they have a constituency that supports doing that. Eventually, maybe you won’t be able to get elected in the Democratic primary unless you address the issue of jobs. That’s not where we are now, but that is where we could be. So this could embolden progressive politicians to talk more about economic issues. Right now they are very timid. As you said, progressive politics tends to play itself out in noneconomic ways. And that could change

TDA: In your opinion, what would a good policy prescription presented by the movement look like?

LM: The movement is not in the business of writing legislation. That’s not what social movements do. Everybody knows what they want. They are talking about income inequality. They are talking about holding some people in the finance sector responsible. They are talking about a serious effort to put people in America back to work. They are talking about having an economy that is grounded more on a notion of fairness and equality. Everyone knows that. These individuals who are going on Fox News and saying they don’t know what these people stand for—it’s a deliberate political ploy to say the movement doesn’t know what it stands for because they themselves don’t know what else to say. It’s a way of degrading the movement, and it is not accurate.

But, turning the movement into legislation—that’s the job of politicians. Some smart senator will come along—the same way people have come along and built careers on environmental politics—and will say “Here’s real progressive economic policy. Now I can get elected with it. Now I can become president with it.”


Noam Chomsky on Occcupy Wall Street, 13 Oct 2011.

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