The End of Outrage?

If inequality is such a growing concern, why are no Americans taking to the streets?

Occupy Wall Street protesters
Occupy Wall Street protesters stand on the steps of Federal Hall, across the street from the New York Stock Exchange, in New York on Sept. 17, 2013.

Photo by Brendan McDermid/Reuters

These days, everyone from Jeb Bush to Barack Obama to Naomi Klein frets about economic inequality. Yet wages continue to stagnate, unions scuffle to survive, the income of CEOs keeps climbing (even for those execs who run their companies into the ground), and anyone who seriously hopes to become president first has to secure the patronage of a billionaire or two. Why do so few Americans seem genuinely outraged? Why is no one taking to the streets?

The United States was once home to wave upon wave of organized indignation against corporate “monopolies” and their Wall Street enablers. During the heyday of the industrial era, movements that fought to redistribute wealth and power attracted millions of ordinary people. From the late 19th century through the 1940s, they persuaded—or pressured—government officials to regulate big business, establish a minimum wage and unemployment insurance, protect union organizers, and create Social Security. More recently, the black and feminist movements, with help from several presidents and judges, interred the entire corpus of discriminatory laws. But neither did much to challenge an economic order in which those with big money make nearly all the important rules.

In a provocative new book, the critic and historian Steve Fraser tries to explain why mass protest on the left has become so scarce in what he aptly calls The Age of Acquiescence.  For Fraser, the main culprits are not such usual suspects as right-wing politicians and the market power of global corporations but public admiration for workaholic entrepreneurs whose self-serving definition of freedom legitimizes their reign.

Fraser blames the pervasive image of leading businessmen as “populist heroes” for quelling mass outrage about how corporations rule both workplaces and politics. It’s difficult to malign a mogul like Steve Jobs, a wonky “striver from the middling classes” who invented such lovely, addictive gadgets. And a female CEO like Meg Whitman at eBay or a black American CEO like Stan O’Neal at Merrill Lynch seems to prove that capitalism can be a mighty force for social change.

In that same vein, Fraser describes how freedom, which bygone progressive movements and liberal icons like Franklin Roosevelt defined as a collective goal (“freedom from want,” “freedom from fear,” etc.), has now become synonymous with the “free market” in which every man and woman supposedly has the same chance to rise or go under. Within this soft tyranny of ideas, billionaires like the brothers Koch can aggressively sponsor candidates who accuse the government of violating their patrons’ “liberty” to create jobs and cheap energy. In contrast, the old robber barons like J.P. Morgan, Fraser comments, “worried about being overthrown, not about overthrowing someone else.”

This is a perceptive reading of the current zeitgeist, although self-reliance and self-made magnates are hardly new elements of American life. But how working people choose to define themselves is also a major reason why they do not mobilize in great numbers to challenge the economic elite. Spurts of well-publicized activism do occur, of course. Just over three years ago, Occupy Wall Street made headlines with little more than an inventive tactic and a catchy slogan about “the 99 percent.” Spirited demonstrations by fast-food workers seeking $15 an hour continue, although that meteor may be descending, too.

Such protests fade away, in part, because there is no potent image of the aggrieved to sustain them. Young radicals able and eager to camp out for weeks in an urban park were never going to be credible representatives of the American majority. Nor could a mere number like “the 99 percent” carry much of an emotional charge. Obama’s call for “middle-class economics,” a variation on a familiar political theme, aims to restore a certain level of consumption. But the notion of a republic inhabited by happy shoppers cannot inspire a movement with any muscle behind it.  

Whatever their differences, the agrarian populists and industrial unionists of old were making a moral claim that was impossible to ignore. They considered themselves to be members of the same class of “producers” without whose labor the entire society would collapse. They fought to transform an economy run by men who exploited their work into an ethical capitalism that would reward it.

During the early years of the Great Depression, labor unions were even weaker than they are now. But they quickly became a power in the land—increasing their membership 500 percent from 1933 to 1945—because they could speak to fellow Americans who loathed the same big businessmen in a shared language of discontent and pride. That helped them defeat the opposition of even an inveterate anti-union employer like Henry Ford, who once had enjoyed a “populist” reputation himself. Ford grew up on a farm and, in 1914, doubled the wages earned by most of his male employees. But by the mid-1930s, his refusal to relax his autocratic control over his employees had alienated him from the public at large.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and other Democratic leaders echoed the grievances of labor and their fellow “producers.” In his 1936 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Roosevelt bashed “the royalists of the economic order” who “denied that the government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live.” By itself, such rhetoric did not re-elect him by a landslide.  But he spoke to millions of wage-earners of all races and genders in terms they already used and cherished. On occasion, President Obama has tried to repeat the performance. Last Labor Day, he declared, “If I were busting my butt in the service industry and wanted an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, I’d join a union.” Yet hardly anyone outside labor’s shrunken ranks paid any attention. Two months later, white workers voted for Republican congressional candidates by a margin of 30 percent.

Of course, the old identities were bound to lose their drawing power. Movements led by white heterosexual men had made them popular; new insurgencies led by other kinds of people embraced new identities to topple kinds of injustices that FDR and his allies had mostly ignored and sometimes perpetuated.

But we all live in a world where we have to listen when big money talks. To change that into a serious two-way conversation, tens of millions of working Americans will have to find a new way of describing themselves in a nation where every downturn brings fresh evidence that, as Janis Joplin sang, freedom means having nothing left to lose.