What the Occupy protests can do next

The "Occupy Wall Street" protests are a month old, but they still haven't set out specific demands. And for good reason -- most Americans blame Washington for the economic woes.

The “Occupy Wall Street” protest is a month old today, perhaps too early to judge its impact. Yet over the weekend, it spread to dozens of cities. And President Obama will campaign this week by taking on the “99 percent” slogan of this still-undefined street gathering of mostly young people.

The protesters who have encamped at Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park and in other American cities have yet to make specific demands for change. Mostly they vent frustrations and assign blame, often for their personal financial woes or joblessness. Eventually, any goals must be worked out at a “general assembly” requiring a supermajority vote.

This tight organization and adherence to rules is admirable, even if the protest itself breaks the law in acts of civil disobedience, such as occupying private land. And their numbers are still well under 1 percent of the population although they claim to speak for the 99 percent who are not super-rich.

Their obvious target is Wall Street, or at least that part of the financial industry with high salaries and that strongly influences politicians. The protesters seem to distrust both Democrats and Republicans because both parties have been recipients of Wall Street’s generous campaign donations.

In 2008, for example, Goldman Sachs gave more money to Mr. Obama than did any other business. In the current presidential campaign, Republican contender Mitt Romney is receiving the most cash from Wall Street.

Eventually, the future of the protests will probably rest on the question of Wall Street’s role in the recession and the rising income inequality in America. If a poll conducted Oct. 13 is any indication, the protesters have their work cut out for them.

More than half of Americans blame the financial crisis on Washington. Only a third blame Wall Street, according to an opinion survey by The Hill, a publication that covers Congress. Among Democratic voters, less than half say the protests will help the party in the 2012 election.

Indeed, the housing bubble of the previous decade was largely caused by Washington’s generous pro-homeownership policies, such as easy credit by the Federal Reserve and loose mortgage rules by Fannie Mae. Wall Street’s role was to bundle mortgages and resell them, often not knowing or admitting how shaky many of them were. When the bubble burst in 2007-08, it was Congress that chose to rescue many big financial firms.

And yet the largely inchoate anger toward Wall Street remains, as seen this past weekend when hundreds of the protesters were arrested in many cities, mostly for not obeying police orders to disperse.

Would this “movement” gain more traction if it focused an equal part of its anger at Washington’s economic policies? To do so, however, might require it to join arms with that other large and loose network of protesters, the tea party.

At their core, the two groups have general gripes about “the elite” and claim to represent the least represented. After all, 86 percent of Americans say Wall Street has too much clout in Washington, according to a Time magazine poll. Public views of Congress are at a record low.

The tea party has already converted its complaints into victory at the polls. Nearly 100 members of Congress elected in 2010 reflect tea party positions in many votes.

How will the Occupy protesters fare in the 2012 elections? Until they stake out specific demands, no one can tell. But if they want to truly represent the “99 percent,” they might do more listening than yelling.

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