Class warfare is a dangerous game. In the short run, it can help energize the disenchanted and disaffected. It has been used, with varying degrees of success, by both parties: by Republicans seeking to pit the middle and upper classes against the poor, and by Democrats seeking to pit the poor and the middle class against the wealthy. Wall Street and welfare moms: Choose your target.
It's more of a 42 percent strategy than a 51 percent winner. But sometimes that's good enough, especially when enthusiasm is flagging and frustration is growing. If you can't give people answers, if there are no solutions on the horizon, at least you can give them someone to hate.
But playing to anger is almost always dangerous. Pile up enough tinder, and one match could trigger an explosion. The American dream is not about anger but opportunity; it's not about dividing people, but unifying us based on our common hopes, our common interests, and our common embrace of a brand of patriotism that is inclusive and not exclusionary.
This is not to say that the frustrations felt by many among the loosely knit "Occupy Wall Street" movement aren't real and legitimate.
People who have worked hard and played by the rules and now find themselves unable to find work, unable to pay their mortgages, unable to pay off their student loans have every reason to be frustrated and angry. And who better to be angry with than the Wall Street fat cats who got bailed out and then seemingly bailed on the folks who were paying for it?
Many Democrats see in this movement a potential answer to the tea party, and recent press accounts report that high-ranking and respected Democrats are divided on the question of whether to support, ignore, or criticize the occupiers.
Certainly, with the Democratic base divided and disenchanted, and in many cases angry or at least frustrated with the president, finding a new target for that anger and frustration has some appeal.
But it's no answer. The analogy to the tea party is flawed for any number of reasons. The tea party attracted substantial financial backing. The tea party appeals to middle-class Americans, who not only tend to have more money than the angry young people who are at the core of the "Occupy" movement, but who also tend to vote. Most young people don't.
But the real problem, politically speaking, with building a Democratic tea party on the back of Wall Street is that it is unlikely to elect more Democrats. The tea party has energized the Republican base, but it has also cost the Republicans critical seats. Just ask would-be (and he likely would have been) Republican Sen. Mike Castle of Delaware, whose defeat in the Republican primary at the hands of Christine O'Donnell led to the election of the Democrat.
Just watch a Republican presidential debate, and watch the candidates embracing Michele Bachmann. Good for the party's prospects? I don't think so. Do Democrats really think that casting Barack Obama as the enemy of business is going to win him this election?
But the problem with the occupation of Wall Street as a solution goes beyond partisan politics. If class warfare could solve this country's economic problems, it would hardly matter which candidate it would help or hurt. It won't. If anything, it could exacerbate them.
Political instability is not good for the economy: How many times have we seen that around the world? Does anyone really think that protesting against business — or even just big business — is going to lead those companies to hire more people? Does anyone really think that this is how we boost consumer confidence? Just the opposite.
Not only is class warfare dangerous and counterproductive, but it's not even right. As in accurate. Yes, there are some folks on Wall Street who make ridiculous amounts of money. But there are more who are sitting at computers hoping to hold on to their jobs — making the coffee, sweeping the offices, counting themselves lucky to be employed. And there are more who went to school and worked hard, hoping to be employed on Wall Street, to find a job at one of those companies, to work at one of those law firms, and have found their hopes dashed as well.
Shut down Wall Street, and the price will be paid not by those who already have millions but by those who are only a little bit luckier, if at all, than the folks who are protesting.
Our political leaders — both Republicans and Democrats — need to understand just how angry and just how frustrated people are. Watching both sides play chicken in Washington feeds that frustration. The only answer to hardship is hope. Without hope, why not take to the streets? Without hope, why not find someone to blame?
Occupying Wall Street may not be the answer, but in the absence of a better one, it is almost surely a movement that will grow.
More Posts by Susan Estrich
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