A reason to celebrate Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movement

Originally published on March 19, 2012 2:44 pm

In his latest column, Adam Davidson profiles two economists, Daron Acemoglu of MIT and James Robinson of Harvard University, who take a surprising stance on Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party Movement: both have the potential to improve the U.S. political system. We asked Daron Acemoglu to elaborate in the following post.

U.S. inequality has surged over the last several decades. Worse, this has been associated with an increase in political inequality: money matters a lot in U.S. politics and most evidence suggests that it matters quite a bit more today than it did several decades ago. We need noisy grassroots movements to deliver a shock to the political system. That is why my co-author, James Robinson, and I see promise in the early rise of both the Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movements (even though since its early inception the Tea Party has become a part of the party establishment).

It doesn't take much to imagine how easily and conclusively the very wealthy can influence our politicians. Political scientist Larry Bartels documents an intriguing and alarming pattern of U.S. senators, Republican and Democrat alike, voting on issues very much the way that their rich constituents would like. We are still debating tax reductions for the top 1% instead of the plight of the average American, the problems with our penal system, or the erosion of civil liberties (see here for more detail).

But no, we haven't reached a point of no return. U.S. institutions have always included some element of inequality: think Southern slavery, Jim Crow, the Gilded Age, McCarthyism. In each case, the political institutions gave enough voice to the people that the worst elements were ultimately weeded out - even if this took a very long time in some cases. For example, the political inequality and the huge economic inequities that the Gilded Age had created were reversed when new political movements formed by Populists and Progressives changed the policy agenda (with quite a bit of help from independent journalists, the muckrakers, of the time).

So it's not time for despair yet, but this shouldn't be read as complacency. As during the Gilded Age and the Civil Rights era, the unequal elements of our institutions do not wither by themselves. It is the willingness of many citizens to defend and push for inclusive institutions that is our source of optimism. It is this that makes Occupy Wall Street - despite its many flaws — a hopeful sign of the future of U.S. institutions. And it is this that makes it essential for the Tea Party Movement to escape the influence of the party establishment and return to its grassroots advocacy.

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