Unlike in Europe, crude redistribution from rich to poor is still highly unpopular in America—and even more so in the last few years. Americans still rightly want merit to be rewarded and don’t like class warfare. But raising taxes on those who have benefited the most from the past 30 years to help reduce the debt is not class warfare. It’s an obviously pragmatic attempt to get some fiscal sanity back, which is why the Republicans have been sounding a little less intransigent on Capitol Hill lately. In that sense, Occupy Wall Street is also Restore Main Street. Some on the fringes seem skeptical of capitalism as a whole, but most seem to believe that what we currently have is not real capitalism, but a mixture of debt, cronyism, and corruption. The collapse of faith in big government is hard to distinguish from the collapse of support for big business—especially when the tax code reads like a conspiracy between them against the rest of us. And once the public loses trust in the core fairness of the economic and political system, we’re in deeper trouble than we realize.
There is simply a limit beyond which economic inequality threatens democratic life, when the majority suspect that a tiny minority has fixed the system beyond repair through the existing institutions, and when the powerful minority begins to think of its own interests as distinct from the interests of its compatriots. That moment is one of real danger, especially when those elites can move themselves and their money more easily across the planet than ever before, and it is a sign of responsibility, not irresponsibility, to focus on it. Among the oldest authorities insisting on just such an issue was Aristotle, whose emphasis on the middle classes as the core strength of a viable democracy remains as true today as it was thousands of years ago. And Aristotle was not a hippie. Nor were Disraeli or Bismarck, two 19th-century conservatives who deployed government to prevent their countries from splitting into alienated haves and have-nots, and fearful of real radicals who could come along to exploit the gap.
What we’re seeing today, I suspect, is a natural swing back against the excesses of the last 30 years of roller-coaster, globalizing capitalism and those who are still trying to co-opt the spoils. It’s not so much a matter of left or right, but of balance. I supported the Reagan reform as a counterweight to liberalism’s overreach in the 1960s and 1970s. But for the same reason, I find Occupy Wall Street strikingly relevant today. Tax revenues, after all, haven’t been this low in half a century; tax rates remain well below what they were under that radical, Eisenhower. And the only way we will achieve serious cuts in entitlements—the other half of the equation for fiscal balance—is if people believe that everyone is sacrificing something. That includes the rich. That isn’t ideology. It’s common sense.
In that respect, these goddam hippies are not as radical as they might seem. They are asking for a return to an older America that the Greatest Generation would have instantly recognized and approved of—fiscally sound, socially balanced, politically stable. Behind the patchouli and nose rings is an argument: that we have to be in this cycle of transformative, destabilizing world history together, or we will fall apart. We can achieve this civilly … or, at some point, violence, as in Greece or, worse, Libya, could unfold.
And so Obama’s promise is finally achieved without Obama—which was the point in the first place, remember? We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, as he put it. Cringe-inducing dreadlocks and all.