Who would have thought that Mitt Romney would give Occupy Wall Street a birthday present? On the day that protesters from the 99 percent took to the streets to mark the anniversary of the encampment at Zuccotti Park, the GOP Presidential hopeful introduced a new number into public circulation: the 47 percent of Americans he claims pay no income taxes, rely on the government and will support President Obama.
Such a comment puts Romney not only in the 1 percent that OWS has been targeting; but in an elite, exclusive top 1 percent of 1 percent of most unfortunate political comments caught on video. Furthermore, it reminds voters just how disdainful of and distant from regular working Americans Governor Romney is. A screenwriter could not have created a candidate that better embodies the 1 percent: The greed, recklessness and obliviousness that has increased wealth disparity and shaken the American economy.
The fact that that theme is part of this election's story owes some debt to the Occupiers who took over a park last year and the tens of thousands of Americans who joined them in solidarity marches, actions and encampments across the country. Our national conversation had been focused on deficits, belt-tightening and austerity - a political landscape that would have been perfect for Romney's partner-in-crime Paul Ryan.
However, our national conversation was ready to change, and Occupy Wall Street sparked what Democratic elected officials, progressive think-tanks and labor unions hadn't been able to: a shift in the dialogue to focus on who was holding our nation's wealth, and why it wasn't being shared more justly with more of our fellow Americans. For every person who spent a night sleeping in a park, hundreds more were voicing their frustration with a corporatocracy that was robbing our country. For every protester who held a sign demanding that the system change, thousands more were asking the same.
A year later, that energy has occupied the themes of this campaign, even while Occupy Wall Street steered clear of elections. There were many of us who wondered about, and hoped for, some sort of "Occupy the Vote" effort to register voters, increase turnout or even field a series of candidates. Such a push never gained traction since there is a strain of thought among some Occupiers that view both parties as equally corrupt and the electoral system as rigged the financial one.
There would have also been room for outside groups to field candidates who ran with OWS messaging -- much as many conservative hopefuls called themselves Tea Party candidates regardless of official affiliation. While progressive candidates have taken on the spirit of the 99 percent, there was certainly no mention, even obliquely, of Occupy at the Democratic Convention…which probably pleased institutional Democrats and hardcore Occupiers equally.
It seems a missed opportunity for OWS to not have been more election-minded in a year when that is occupying all of America's political discussions. If it didn't take the form of endorsing, it could have been about disrupting: challenging candidates who claim to take on Wall Street while taking just as much money from bankers. Or it could have been the truly radical act of bringing an army of new voters to the polls. If you think a few hundred people in a park cause the authorities to panic, imagine what a few million new voters would do.
But Occupy isn't about election cycles. It's about laying out a broader alternative to the way America works, and about building the foundation for a movement that may follow. The anniversary actions yesterday had the mix of creativity and confrontation, excitement and aimlessness, direct democracy and distracting demagoguery, signs, slogans, chants, costumes and compassion that flavored events last fall. The anger at the system is still there, as is the optimistic hope that we can create a different way.
It was fitting that on Sunday night, Occupiers held a Rosh Hashannah service at Zuccotti Park. Like the Kol Nidre service for Yom Kippur last year, this year's Occupy Rosh Hashannah welcomed a large, diverse, crowd. Different ages and religions joined together to create something peaceful, uplifting and shared. They elevated the vision of what could be done in a public space, struck down barriers to entry, and built something safe in the midst of surrounding chaos.
That's the truly radical world we may envision, and not one likely to emerge just through November's election. It's certainly not something Mitt Romney will get behind. After all, from the outset, there are 47 percent of Americans he's definitely not interested in extending any invitation to at all.