The new rhetoric

The facts emphasized by the Occupy Wall Street protesters are not new. Sen. Bernard Sanders has been talking for years about the dangerous influence and lack of accountability of corporations and the growing economic inequality that is wrecking the nation.

But something is new. Now a report by the Congressional Budget Office describing the growing wealth of the top 1 percent of earners has received widespread attention and a new kind of legitimacy in the public discourse. The conservative orthodoxy that has held sway for 30 years is finally beginning to crack.

Liberals thought the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was a sign the orthodoxy was cracking. Conservatism under President George W. Bush had imploded, and Obama showed signs early on that he wanted to be an activist president, responding to the economic collapse with Rooseveltian ambitions.

But then came the conservative reaction and obstructionism by the Republican minority in Congress against Obama's agenda. Republicans harnessed popular anger about the recession and what they portrayed as a government in league with Wall Street to successfully thwart or limit Obama's remedies.

Obama invited the Republican backlash by the failure of his administration to hold Wall Street accountable for its criminal destructiveness; instead, banks were coddled back to health with the idea that the economy would suffer if Wall Street tottered. 

It became apparent soon enough that, even as the Republicans had blocked many Obama initiatives, they themselves had nothing to offer except for greater subservience to the corporations that had brought on the economic collapse. The Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court underscored the growing hold that large corporations have on the political sphere. 

The American people noticed these things, and finally the Occupy movement began to give expression to the incapacity of our politics to subject our economic malefactors to justice and to move in the direction of economic health.

Consider how far askew our political rhetoric had gone. Obama had proposed a return to tax rates on the richest Americans that prevailed during the Clinton years. (He refrained from subjecting the middle class to 1990s tax rates.) Yet conservative power had grown so extreme that to suggest even this reasonable alteration of tax rates was portrayed as a job-killing, wealth-redistributing, quasi-socialist tax grab. 

In fact, the Obama-backed tax changes would be nothing more than an adjustment of rates designed to address growing deficits and introduce a modestly greater degree of tax equity. President Clinton was not a socialist, and socialism did not govern our institutions during his tenure. Returning to tax rates in place during that era of prosperity would be a modest, but hardly radical, reform. 

To suggest that our tax rates cannot be readjusted from time to time to respond to economic conditions is to impose a dangerous political paralysis on our government. And yet that is what the conservative orthodoxy wants: To serve their self-interest, corporations and powerful lobbying groups maintain an unyielding, no-compromise stance designed to portray any liberalization of economic policy as irresponsible class warfare.

It is this political paralysis and the self-interest of the wealthy that are most seriously challenged by the Occupy movement, which is why conservatives are eager to portray the protests as a "mob" action.

In fact, what is infuriating to most Americans probably is not that there are rich people in America. Rather, it is the assumption promulgated by conservatives that the rich are off limits, untouchable, special - that they must be pampered, that they do not possess a special responsibility, that it is somehow unseemly or harmful to the nation to ask them to do their share. 

That is changing. Mainstream media are picking up the new liberal rhetoric and the new assumptions, widely shared by protesters and by people across America, that Wall Street must be brought under control so it ends its pillaging of the American economy. It is no longer wistful, impractical liberalism to talk about economic justice - because so many have suffered from the abuses perpetrated by corporations and their enablers in government.