Occupy is Right: It’s the Economy, Stupid. And Don’t Forget Democracy.

By Richard Kirsch |

Fights for economic and environmental justice must also incorporate the fight against big money’s hold on our political system.

Most people remember the famous sign in the Clinton campaign war room in 1992 as “It’s the economy stupid!” But what is often forgotten is the second phrase in the admonition to Clinton campaigners to keep a sharp focus on the campaign’s message: “And don’t forget health care.”

Today, the sign should read, “It’s the economy stupid. And don’t forget democracy.” That advice was provided recently by the pollster who worked on Clinton’s 1992 campaign, Stan Greenberg. In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Greenberg summarized the views of many Americans as, “There’s just such a control of government by the wealthy that whatever happens, it’s not working for all the people; it’s working for a few of the people… They think that the game is rigged and that the wealthy and big industries get policies that reinforce their advantage. And they do not think their voices matter.”

Unlike most advocates for economic justice or democracy who have separated the issues, the Occupiers got this right from the beginning. They clearly see economic inequality, corporate power, and the capture our democracy by big money as a unified problem. The “we are the 99%” meme embraces both gracefully: We can’t have an economy that works for the 99% until we put our democracy in the hands of the 99%.

I recently wrote a strategic paper for the Piper Fund, an arm of the Proteus Fund, on a comprehensive strategy to fight the stranglehold that big money has on our democracy. I found in dozens of interviews that Occupy gave much needed encouragement to campaign finance reformers who were reeling in the aftermath of Citizens United. But Occupy provides more than a moral boost — it provides a way out of the dead end that both campaigners for economic justice and political reform have found themselves in.

The way forward is for champions of reforms in money and politics to become closely allied with champions of economic justice and other issues of pressing concern, particularly the environment. This must be a reciprocal alliance, a partnership, because champions of those pushing for an economy of shared prosperity or a sustainable environment will be unable to rally people to their issues unless they take on the control of our government by corporations and other well-financed interests

The good news is that many advocates for both campaign finance reform and issues of economic and environmental justice understand this. As I talked with dozens of activists and funders in all three areas of work, the strategy that was most often proposed was to intimately link specific issues to money and politics and to do so in every sphere: communications, organizing and mobilization, legislative advocacy, and electoral accountability.

As one longtime campaign finance reformer told me, “We need to build a populist movement that will have energy. We need to take what people get about corporate money and elections and turn cynicism into movement and action. We need to stop talking about campaign finance reform – it puts people to sleep – and talk about democracy in terms of jobs, economy, and environment.”

Our actions and words must point the way to broad policy solutions as well, because people need to have some basic understanding of how we can create an economy and democracy that works for all of us. Demonstrating against Wall Street must be linked with policies that create broad-based prosperity, which are achieved through democratic reforms. All of us – Occupy included – can incorporate policies that people can easily grasp without becoming deadly wonky. So we can say, “Tax Wall Street speculation to pay for Main Street job creation.” And, “Elect candidates with small contributions from the 99%, instead of mega-contributions from the 1%.”

In an age where our politics are so dominated by concentrated economic and political power, it is hard to grasp the possibility of fundamental change. We can read Justice Brandeis’s observation almost 100 years ago that “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both” as either a warning that plutocracy will destroy our nation or a prediction that the contradictions of plutocracy will provide the pathway to a transformation. In FDR’s day, the nation made that transformation. It is up to us to make it again in the next New Deal. 

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.


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Richard Kirsch is a former Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and the author of Fighting for Our Health: The Epic Battle to Make Health Care a Right in the United States.