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Occupy fizzled because it got America wrong

Robert Ehrlich says protesters failed to realize that most people would like to join the 1 percent

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

10:13 AM EDT, September 24, 2012

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Some pundits are bemoaning the unremarkable one-year anniversary of the "Occupy" movement's entry into American politics.

Indeed, it was not so long ago that daily street protests were the object of intense media coverage. For many progressives, hopes were high. Some viewed the angst-ridden movement as a convenient adjunct for the president's re-election campaign. The timing seemed perfect. Here was another opportunity to attack capitalism and all those wealthy folks who never seem to pay their "fair share." And to do so during an election year; things don't get much better for the class envy crowd.

Occupy supporters were even more pumped after the president himself signaled solidarity with the cause. Finally, a leader who was all about redistribution of wealth!

But the momentum has died. The remaining encampments are small. Media coverage is sporadic at best. And the political class is attempting to understand why.

Here's a thought: While there is a real and increasing sense of economic angst among many Americans, the demonstrators of Wall Street fame did not (and could not) capture their frame of mind.

The reason for the disconnect is readily apparent when middle class values are compared and contrasted with the words (let alone the slogans) of the Wall Street malcontents: The rent-a-cause protesters' abhorrence of all things market-driven and capitalistic is antithetical to the hopes and dreams of so many Americans who aim for higher economic status. To borrow a phrase, a clear majority of working Americans have skin in the game — they work hard and expect that their hard work will elevate their standard of living. They do not, however, expect a guaranteed result from the government.

In today's political jargon, it's difficult to get the 99 percent to resent the 1 percent when much of the 99 percent wishes to join the 1 percent.

The purveyors of class envy rhetoric may disapprove, but upward mobility and wealth creation remain primary goals for most Americans. For the angry crowds of Wall Street fame, not so much. They recoil from the notion of all those entrepreneurial capitalists who wish to take a risk, start a business and make a buck. Maybe even buy an SUV.

Each "side" also has a quite different take on the nature of "demands" made to reach their respective cultural and economic goals.

From the occupiers' perspective, demands are expensive and expansive: green jobs, mandatory wage scales, a "living wage," free health care, retirement security, gender equality, limitless welfare benefits, etc. These entitlements constitute the familiar building blocks of an egalitarian society.

Conversely, those worried but unimpressed with the Occupy crowd understand government is unable to guarantee most of the foregoing agenda because it does not possess the ability to create the wealth required to secure the demands. Accordingly, their agendas are more intangible (balance the budget, pay down the debt, live within one's means), but achievable.

The resulting clash is predictable: the latter does not see the government as a guarantor of particular results. And that's not good enough for an Occupy movement desirous of a large and ever-growing government presence in our lives.

Consider: One group demands ever-more tax revenue from the "rich"; the other wonders why their "take-home" pay is so much lower than their salary. One group demands government subsidies from cradle to grave; the other craves individual initiative and success. One group demands additional stimulus and a "hands off" approach to entitlements, while the other sees Obama-era spending and regulatory excess as major factors in the economic malaise. One group demands a new political class that will impose greater economic equality, while the other asks for a new political class that understands how such government intervention helped fuel our economic upheaval.

Despite a disparate platform, Occupy's central themes are clear: limited economic horizons, progressive taxation, and aggressive government control of the economy. Indeed, a market economy with its inherent winners and losers is alien to the "social justice" agenda. Theirs is a justice born of seemingly limitless government-provided entitlements — benefits that seek to level the results of marketplace competition, if you will. But this ultra-progressive definition of social justice has little to do with our traditional (middle-class) view of freedom from government, competitive opportunity and wealth creation. Hence, their relatively quick exit from our daily media reports.

Occupy may make a comeback bid. A compliant media would welcome it. But the odds will be stacked against them so long as the movement's leaders misinterpret the (still) viable wants and desires of middle-class America.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding, the author of "Turn this Car Around" — a book about national politics — and Maryland chairman for the Romney presidential campaign. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.