The Politics of Occupy Wall Street, One Month In

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Slate political reporter Dave Weigel discussed what impact the month-old Occupy Wall Street action is having on the political debate.

Disappointed with Obama?

When it comes to roller coaster rides on Wall Street, the New York Stock Exchange used to be the only game in town. For the last month, however, Occupy Wall Street protests have taken the spotlight off of turbulent markets and on to the public square, where the "99 percent" have camped out since mid-September.

Why have they stayed so long, and what would it take to make them leave? That's sort of the overarching complaint about these protests: To many on the outside, they appear to have no end in sight, no logical political conclusion—electoral or legislative—that could fix what protesters think is wrong with the country.

Dave Weigel said that perception is mostly accurate. The protesters in general—whom he describes as the "post-Obama Left"—have given up thinking they can get what they want through traditional political means.

You meet more people who voted for [Obama] really thinking it was their last-ditch attempt at using politics to get what they wanted...They saw this once-in-a-generation chance to really change America and they think it's gone, so they're being realistic about what they can do now...They've moved on from thinking they can get anything done in Washington.

Defining the income inequality problem

Whether or not Occupy Wall Street influences elections or legislation in the immediate future, there are signs that they've sparked a new national conversation about income inequality. Dave Weigel cited polling that showed a majority of Americans agreeing with protesters' complaints about wealth distribution.

That Occupy Wall Street has got Americans talking about income inequality is no small feat, Weigel said, especially in a climate where it's easier to characterize such discussions as "anti-Capitalist" or "anti-American" than to consider the arguments.

The movement's been pretty successful so far in saying the question is, why has inequality been rising so much over last 10 years? Why are CEOs being paid so much?...What this movement is trying to do is define the problem, and to explain inequality, which most people don't really want to understand.

Another reason it's less political

Though Occupy Wall Street is largely a left-wing movement, it's not simply the negative image of the Tea Party.

The Tea Party has enjoyed tremendous success influencing elections and steering the national conversation toward spending cuts and smaller government. They've enjoyed clear political success, not least because they have a clear political target in Barack Obama.

Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, does not have a clear political target; the near-entire political establishment is their target. Dave Weigel said that's eventually going to implicate some heroes of the Left.

It's less political because some of the villains that will get exposed in this process are going to be Democrats, people like Bill Clinton, Robert Rubin, Barney Frank.