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Why Occupy Wall Street Has Already Won

Occupy Wall Street is winning. Not as a political movement or as an engine of economic change -- time will tell if the uprising has legs. As a cultural force, however, the protests already have opponents on the run.

For instance, here's Republican bulldog and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday meekly recanting his comments last week deriding the protesters as a "mob":

People are upset, and they're justifiably frustrated. They're out of work. The economy is not moving. Their sense of security for the future is not clear at all. People are afraid and I get it.
As his shift in tone shows, it's Cantor who is afraid. We get it. So is Fox News anchor Sean Hannity, who recently told one OWS supporter who appeared on his radio show that "you don't believe in liberty, you don't believe in freedom."

Shades of '32
Rhetorically, you know you're in trouble when talking points sound more like punchlines. Because to point out the obvious, it is this country's national legacy to shake things up in the name of liberty and freedom. It is, Hannity seems to have forgotten, who we are. Who are you, Sean?

OWS is also winning the public relations war. Images of the police arresting U.S. veterans -- veterans! -- taking part in an Occupy Boston rally last night can't sit well with Americans. It smacks of Present Hoover in 1932 calling out the army, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, to forcibly subdue jobless World War I veterans. The ensuing media backlash, along with the Depression, finished off Hoover's slim reelection hopes.

Reports suggest that the media were barred from filming the mass arrests in Boston. The reason for that is clear: shame -- a sense that there is something to hide here. In the age of social media, of course, nothing is hidden. That extended hand trying to cover up the camera lens is a sign not of strength, but of futility.

Populism is, above all, about awakening people to their place in the social hierarchy and giving them a framework -- a credo, a language, a forum -- for enlisting public support. Images of drawn swords -- or, in our era, pepper spray deployed against peaceful protesters -- not only spread the word about insurgency, they galvanize it.

What remains unclear, as it is bound to at this early stage, is whether the OWS protests will build on its momentum and become a movement for political change. The question is no longer whether this movement matters. Its rapid growth is proof enough of that. Nor is there much uncertainty, as some in the media disingenuously adduced, over what the protesters want. Simple -- they want to change the relationship between concentrated wealth and average citizens.

If that goal is easy to grasp, it goes without saying that it is monumentally difficult to achieve. The major obstacles aren't conservative lawmakers or on-air personalities. The ballot box and the TV remote still count for something. It is, at a deeper level, the rigidities of thought that shape and define our political mainstream.

For now, many Americans remain inclined to think in terms of "right" and "left," capitalism and socialism, rather than in the clarifying idiom of economic interest. This country has never been very good at setting aside our inherited political traditions to focus on issues of socioeconomic class, which after all isn't supposed to exist.

OWS is changing that. As Hannity might have it, let freedom ring.

Thumbnail by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0; image by TWP via Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0