New York Everywhere, it seems, people want to weigh in about the Occupy Wall Street protests around the country, from CEOs and politicians to your next-door neighbor. So far the talk has translated into little action.
Two months into the movement, with police dismantling the encampments one by one, city by city, few politicians or policymakers have publicly taken up the protesters’ cause and done anything to address corporate excesses and economic inequality.
But some political observers say the demonstrators have changed the conversation in the U.S., and that is a big first step.
“They’ve shifted the center of gravity of the debate so that the whole question of wealth and privilege is now being discussed,” said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Washington political think tank. “In a democracy, what people are talking about matters.”
Georgia state Sen. Vincent Fort, a Democrat who was among those arrested when protesters were expelled from an Atlanta park last month, said he is not troubled by the absence of any major tangible change.
“The Occupy movement is a relative baby. It’s just a few months old,” he said. “The most important thing it has done is to change the conversation in this country. You can’t have any policy change, you can’t have any legislative change, until the debate is changed.”
Examples of real, measurable Occupy-inspired change in the political sphere are hard to come by.
In Rhode Island, Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse noted that Occupy activists encouraged customers to fight back recently against fees imposed by major banks — a fight that ended with Bank of America and its competitors backing down. Whitehouse is trying to channel the anger that has bubbled up in the Occupy movement against big banks as he seeks support for a bill to crack down on credit card interest rates.
Union leaders say the Occupy movement has also brought a spark of optimism and energy to organized labor after a summer of setbacks and assaults on their bargaining power.
“The Occupy movement has framed the fight,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union. “They’ve totally changed the debate within a 30-day period.” She added: “It has impacted expectations among people who were beaten down.”
In fact, labor leaders insist the Occupy movement’s message of economic inequality was a factor earlier this month in Ohio, where voters overwhelmingly repealed a law curtailing public employees’ right to collective bargaining.
But political experts are skeptical of that claim.
“That’s a stretch,” said Paul Beck, a political science professor at the Ohio State University in Columbus. “The sentiment of Ohioans on that bill very much precedes any of the Occupy Wall Street activities and their spinoffs in various cities.”