The question is not whether the financial industry will encounter a volatile and difficult political climate this election year. The question is just how tough that climate will be.
Public opinion can be expected to remain sour toward the industry in the coming months. Polls show that confidence and trust in financial institutions have been stubbornly low since the financial crisis erupted and through the recession and weak recovery.
A poll taken for CNN in October, for instance, asked: “Overall, how much do you trust Wall Street bankers and brokers to do what is best for the economy: a great deal, somewhat, a little, or not at all?” The hands-down winner was “not at all” with 54 percent, while “a little” and “somewhat” got 22 and 20 percent, respectively. “A great deal” got 3 percent, which was also the poll’s margin of error.
The Occupy Wall Street movement, of course, tapped into that well of public discontent. By late autumn, though, the movement seemed to be losing momentum, as protestors were cleared from encampments in lower Manhattan and around the country. Polls showed eroding public support for the protests, with concerns rising about both the methods and the objectives of the demonstrators.
This does not, however, translate into enthusiasm for the protestors’ Wall Street targets. Plausibly, the Occupiers would have maintained stronger public backing had they kept a more narrow focus on the financial industry. As it was, Occupy manifestos complained about everything from pharmaceutical patents to drone strikes to post-Thanksgiving Black Friday sales.
Public disgruntlement with the financial industry stretches across the political spectrum. Tea Party activism arose in no small part from antipathy to federal bailouts of financial institutions. Occupy Wall Street rallies have attracted contingents of Ron Paul supporters eager to end the Federal Reserve and broadly hostile to the financial sector and in particular to the practice of fractional reserve banking.
In a November Washington Post op-ed titled “Why Occupy Wall Street Will Keep Up the Fight,” Kalle Lasn and Micah White, editors of the magazine Adbusters and key figures in getting the movement started, outlined a strategy for the Occupiers’ second phase, emphasizing a “marked escalation of surprise, playful, precision disruptions — rush hour flash mobs, bank occupations, ‘occupy squads’ and edgy theatrics.”
Lasn and White also promised that “we will see clearly articulated demands,” and topped their list with finance-related measures: “a ‘Robin Hood tax’ on all financial transactions and currency trades; a ban on high-frequency ‘flash’ trading [and] the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act to again separate investment banking from commercial banking.” And they gleaned something the Occupy movement might evolve into: “with a bit of luck, perhaps even the birth of a new, left-right hybrid political party that moves America beyond the Coke vs. Pepsi choices of the past.”
It is possible that Occupy 2.0 will manage to get a financial transactions tax and the other measures mentioned high onto the political agenda — or even enacted into law. It would be unwise to dismiss the political potential of the revamped movement sketched out by Lasn and White, who after all showed considerable savvy in making the Occupy movement into a viral and brand-like product in the first place.
However, contemplating their vision, one can identify some weaknesses and pitfalls that may limit their movement’s success. For one thing, given the wildly proliferating causes and grievances that attached to the Occupy campouts in the autumn, it is questionable whether demonstrators will maintain a disciplined focus henceforth on a particular set of issues or pieces of legislation. Lasn and White’s own proposal list moves into some amorphous territory, calling for “a move toward a ‘true cost’ market regime in which the price of every product reflects the ecological cost of its production.”
Second, while the emphasis on surprise disruptions might succeed at keeping police and mayors off balance, it also runs risks of alienating the broader public. People might not want “edgy theatrics” interfering with their rush-hour commute, or bank occupations that impede the availability of their hard-earned money or, for that matter, make it harder to sit down with their financial advisor.