The “Occupy Wall Street” movement has been catching flak for its perceived lack of clear goals, but the protests have already put new energy behind one big idea: reforming the role of money in politics.
Advocates of campaign finance reform say the protesters in New York and elsewhere have, in recent weeks, brought the question of corporate influence closer to the front burner of national discourse, adding fresh momentum to their own efforts.
"I can't tell you how thrilled I am," says Annabel Park, founder and president of Coffee Party USA, a group that promotes campaign finance reform with grass-roots support. "It's like a miracle," she says. Even though many Americans worry about the money in politics, "it's hard to get people's attention on this."
Ms. Park says she's seen synergy between her group and Occupy Wall Street, which has spawned a range of nationwide demonstrations since protesters set up camp in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17. Some Coffee Party followers have joined in Occupy rallies. And Park says she's seen a rise in public support for her own group over the past month.
Even before Occupy Wall Street began, the Coffee Party was planning an "Enough is enough" rally in Washington on Oct. 29. That event could see its ranks grow, as it now becomes part of a larger season of protest in America.
Similarly, an online petition drive called "Get Money Out" launched in late September, with the goal (shared by the Coffee Party) of amending the Constitution so that corporate money can be banned from politics. Dylan Ratigan, who hosts a news show on the MSNBC network, has spearheaded the effort, which has attracted about 190,000 signers as of Thursday.
The growing energy around this issue doesn't mean that campaign reform is a sure thing. Far from it. Because the Supreme Court upheld corporate campaign donations as a form of free speech, many backers of reform say their best way forward is through an amendment to the Constitution.
And that process is difficult, ultimately requiring approval in three-quarters of US states, leading supporters to conclude that to be successful a strong nonpartisan movement including Republicans and Democrats is required.
So it seems like a long shot, to put it mildly.
But it's also an idea that's welling up lately from a lot of frustrated citizens in the US. And elsewhere. When Park was interviewed Thursday, she was speaking from an "Alter EU" conference in Brussels held by a coalition of groups that describes itself as "concerned with the increasing influence exerted by corporate lobbyists on the political agenda in Europe."
It was a Canadian magazine, Adbusters, that may have lit the fuse for the Wall Street protests. The magazine, built around an anti-corporate message, called on Americans to adopt the spirit of the Arab Spring protests and "occupy Wall Street for a few months," focusing on "one demand."
The magazine didn't try to dictate what the demand should be, but suggested that one promising idea would be to call for a presidential commission on ending the influence of money over elected officials.
To date, the Wall Street protesters haven't coalesced around specific demands. They have voiced a range of concerns, from a desire to reduce bank foreclosures on homes to the goal of a tax system in which the wealthy pay more. Many are young people who are mainly worried about the dearth of jobs and the size of their student loans.
If the protests continue and gather focus, it could be that several policy ideas – not just campaign finance reform – draw new strength from the movement.
But if the protests do currently have a central theme, it's the notion that a few – the "1 percent" (which appears to stand for both rich people and the corporations and banks they help control) – have an undue amount of power and have abused it.
For many of the protesters, this concern about the political system coincides with their everyday economic concerns.
Richard Coates is one of the people who recently attended a march against banks and corporations in Boston. He's a construction worker who's been mostly jobless since the housing downturn began during 2006.
After seeing videos of Occupy Wall Street on youtube, he says, he decided to show up for the Boston protest, because "I totally agree with what they're fighting for." In his view, the problems in the economy and with government policy all go back to a system in which corporations have too much influence.
"What's the difference between a bribe and a campaign contribution?" he asked, as he prepared to demonstrate outside Bank of America in Boston.
That sentiment may be emerging most strongly now on the political left, but political analysts see similar frustrations on the right.
A key challenge is that the two ends of the political spectrum also have mutual mistrust. Many on the right, for example, see the "Occupy" crowd as embracing big government at the expense of free-market liberty.
Some voices, however, have emerged recently in support of political change that transcends traditional political labels.
"This is a right-left issue if there ever was one," blogger Josh Silver wrote recently, supporting the idea of reforms that would revoke the legal notion that corporations are persons, and "reverse the January 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision that lifted the flood gates to unlimited corporate money in elections."
It's far too soon to know whether those who are pushing for a constitutional amendment will gain the steam they would need for passage. The discussion has just become more audible, though.