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Seven Ways Occupy Changed America—and Is Still Changing It

David Callahan

Occupy Wall Street was born exactly two years ago today, and even as that movement reached its zenith later in the fall of 2011, it was easy to dismiss the activists who took over financial centers around the nation. Their policy agenda was amorphous and their organizational processes seemed maddening. Compared to the Tea Party, with its disciplined focus on winning elections, Occupy appeared fleeting and ineffective. 

Yet Occupy changed America in major ways, and is still changing it. Here are seven big ways Occupy influenced both U.S. politics and culture:

1. Putting Inequality on the Agenda

Before Occupy came along, the Tea Party narrative was dominant in American politics. Conservative activists told a story about how big government was strangling taxpayers and small businesses, holding back growth, fiscally bankrupting the nation, and attacking freedom. Occupy's rise was a pivot point away from that narrative. It legitimized public discussion of inequality and helped embolden Democrats to talk about this problem, including President Obama, who gave a hard-hitting speech on inequality in Osawatomie, Kansas just three months after demostrators first appeared at Zuccotti Park.

2. Shaping the 2012 Election

Occupy had a huge influence over the 2012 election by putting inequality on the national agenda just six months before the GOP selected a wealthy financial leader as their nominee. By late spring 2012, the Obama campaign was pounding Mitt Romney with a toned down version of Occupy's anti-Wall Street message. That message would have felt jarring and off if Americans hadn't spent the fall of 2011 hearing discussion of economic disparities and financial abuses thanks to Occupy. Instead, the message resonated deeply with a prepped public and Romney never recovered from being cast as a plutocratic villain. 

3. Influencing Tax Debates

Occupy didn't just push inequality into the mainstream of politics, it also helped legitimize one key solution to inequality: raising taxes on the rich. In the past, conservatives had been able to successfully demonize plans to raise taxes on high earners using a broad "tax-and-spend" attack on liberalism. But in 2012, President Obama drew on broad public support when he campaigned on a platform to raise taxes on the rich and was largely innoculated against the typical anti-tax attacks. After the election, Republicans capitulated in the fiscal cliff negotiations and allowed taxes to rise on high earners for the first time in twenty years. Governor Jerry Brown of California also secured higher taxes on the wealthy in 2012 as a result of a successful ballot initiative. Occupy deserves a share of credit for these victories. 

4. Reviving Progressive Populism

The Tea Party had a monopoly on populist energies before Occupy. Bizarrely, the right had successfuly channeled American anger at an economic collapse caused by Wall Street into a stepped up assault on government regulation and redistributive policies. Occupy grabbed some of that anger for the left and re-directed it to the proper targets: corporations, financial elites, and the politicians who cater to them. Occupy awoke dormant activist energies on the left and became the strongest display of progressive populist muscle since the anti-war movement 40 years earlier. This new energy has helped fuel a variety of organizing efforts unrelated to Wall Street or the economy. Occupy will endure as a seminal moment in the lives of young progressive activists who grew up largely during the Clinton and Bush years with no memory of mobilized progressive energy beyond the 2008 Obama campaign. 

5. Seeding the New Union Organizing

The wave of worker protests and strikes over the past year, targeting low-wage employers, is partly an outgrowth of Occupy. By showing the power of public protests, combined with online organizing and support from the progressive media and policy world, Occupy encouraged other social movements. And by elevating the problem of inequality, Occupy helped frame the larger challenge that low-wage were taking on when they walked off of jobs paying poverty wages amid record profits for their employers. Thanks partly to Occupy's ground work, the strikers and protestors have enjoyed wide public and even elite support. 

6. Keeping the Heat on Wall Street

While Occupy was a broad attack on economic and power disparities, it was also a very specific attack on a financial industry that remained arrogant, unrepentant, and under-regulated three years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Occupy's sharp and fresh critique of Wall Street power came at a crucial moment, as regulators struggled to implement the historic Dodd-Frank law and various civil suits against financial firms remained pending. Putting the misdeeds of the financial industry back in the spotlight helped bolster the push for accountability amid massive resistance by the industry and their political allies in Congress. 

7. Offering Alternatives to Capitalism

Finally, Occupy helped strengthen a weak thread of the American progressive tradition—namely, exploring alternative to capitalism. After the protests and encampments were gone, a significant piece of Occupy energy was channeled into building and promoting various cooperative and collective forms of commerce and community. These efforts have brought new energy to a growing constellation of work focused on creating community-based wealth, worker ownership, state banks, and the like. This part of the story is still ongoing. But, ultimately, Occupy's legacy in questioning capitalism may be its most enduring.