In lower Manhattan as I write, thousands of protesters, recently joined by some unions, local New York politicians, and a few celebrities, are thronging Zuccotti Park. While their message is by design not a unified one, and specific demands of the sort one expects at a protest are evidently not forthcoming, there is a loose, common belief that explains why the movement is called “Occupy Wall Street.”
It’s the belief that, increasingly, this country is organized for and around the interests of the very rich; that, on a profound scale, the influence of private money on government affairs is perverting the aims of collective organization through government to build a country and solve its problems.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has been compared to the Tea Party movement that sprang up in the wake of the 2008 presidential election, and which organized a similarly disparate group of interests, including Ron Paul supporters, people with certain theories about tax policy, and people with an overall distaste for what they saw as government by and for the coastal elites.
There are, of course, stark differences between the two. A more discomfiting analogy than the Tea Party to the aims and ideas of the Occupy Wall Street crowd are the aims of a subset of the very people they are protesting: a loose but similarly Washington-averse “protest movement” taking hold among America’s rich. The goals of this group are populist in spirit, but the method they promote is the intervention of a superclass of billionaires in the political process in order to save it from itself. Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, is a prominent figure in this movement, which, like the Occupy Wall Street movement, is technically leaderless.
Schultz has pioneered a campaign aimed at getting the biggest individual donors to election campaigns to withhold their money from candidates until a bipartisan deal is reached in Washington that sets the country “on stronger long-term fiscal footing.” Only then, Schultz argues, can Washington be purified of the partisan bickering in which only the vagaries of the political process itself separate left from right, or right from wrong. Similar calls to action have come from influential op-ed columnists and big-money philanthropists.
Where any of these three movements is going is impossible to tell. The billionaire club’s political ambitions are still nascent, as are those of the young Occupy Wall Street protesters. The Tea Party, on the other hand, arguably controls the gop conference in the House of Representatives and is powerful enough to shape the agenda for the Republican Party itself, for now at least.
Still, to consider the future of the country, I believe, requires contemplating these three strands of civil action. They are evidence that this period of time is transforming in a deep way how Americans view the interaction of government and private money.
After all, it seems that government cannot achieve its objectives in any number of areas without cooperation from large corporate interests. How to reform health care without reckoning with the health-insurance industry? How to create energy independence without bargaining with the energy industry? Government negotiates with the auto and banking industries about the shape of their bailouts. To deal with education, it must work with the privately funded reform movement that is pushing charter schools and testing, among other things.
Journalism has always most strongly identified itself as a check on government. Now, though, as the lines between large private fortunes and corporate interests and the government get blurrier, journalists must begin to think of corporate America and of the super-rich as another strand of government, and guard their independence from corporate interests and the rich as carefully as they guard their independence from government.
Yet as the foundations of the business model for traditional journalism shift and change and, in some cases, fall away, what happens to that check and balance? We all know that legacy journalism outlets have been receding. Newspaper print revenue in 2010, for one example, was less than half what it was in 2005. Some newsrooms have been cut by more than half.