This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable

The Daily Need

What’s motivating the 99 percent? Herman Cain says it’s jealousy, others say it’s fear

In perhaps the most recognizable sign that the “Occupy Wall Street” movement taking shape across the country is threatening to upend the political order, Republican politicians and presidential candidates — who unabashedly embraced the Tea Party movement — are rushing to condemn the protests as a distraction from the Obama administration’s economic record.

The denunciations began last week when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, of Virginia, told an audience at the Values Voters Summit that he was “increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and the other cities across the country.” Cantor characterized the protests as the “pitting of Americans against Americans,” an assertion that was supported by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who called the protests an example of “class warfare.”

The latest and perhaps most incendiary comments have came from Herman Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO and presidential candidate who has been building support among Tea Party voters and risen to third in most primary polls. Cain called the protesters “un-American” for, as he put it, lashing out against capitalism itself, and said the hundreds of demonstrators camping out in Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan and elsewhere across the country were driven, in part, by jealousy.

“I don’t have facts to back this up, but I happen to believe that these demonstrations are planned and orchestrated to distract from the failed policies of the Obama administration,” Cain told The Wall Street Journal last week. “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.”

It is, of course, impossible to discern for certain the motivation of the protesters. We can only judge them by their actions and words. And if their words are a reliable indication, the protesters seem to motivated by something other than the “Cadillacs” Cain accused them of coveting: Debt. A textual analysis of posts at the “We are the 99 percent” blog of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement by Mike Konczal, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, has found that one of the overriding concerns of the “Occupy” followers is not taxes or the financial industry, but student loans.

Konczal wrote a computer script that analyzed the posts on the blog, isolating and aggregating key “words of interest” that might provide clues to the main concerns of the protesters. Of the top ten most frequently appearing words of interest on the blog, at least seven had something to do with paying student loans or being able to afford college. The demands of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, it turns out, aren’t nearly as radical or far-reaching as the wholesale redistribution of wealth or the common ownership of industry. Konczal sums up what the protesters seem to want this way: “Free us from the bondage of our debts and give us a basic ability to survive.”

To be fair, the use of social media skews younger — Konczal found a median age of posters on the “We are the 99 percent” blog of 26 — and it may indeed be the case that the concerns of the protesters who actually comprise the “Occupy” encampments across the country are broader and more aggressively egalitarian. But Konczal’s empirical analysis supports what others have already reported based on anecdotal evidence: The 99 percent, as Konczal put it, “looks too beaten down to demand anything as grand as ‘fairness’ in their distribution of the economy.”

The apparent glumness of the protesters is, in a way, what distinguishes them from supporters of the Tea Party. “It’s more melancholy than anger,” Saul Gonzalez, a producer with the Los Angeles public broadcaster KCRW, said of the “Occupy LA” protesters in an interview this week. “These are the millennials and the Y Generation folks who have been left out of the economy they thought they were going to step into.”

As many have noted, the concerns of recent college graduates may not be as dire as the middle-aged unemployed, those whose long careers, steadily pursued and assiduously constructed, have come tumbling down in almost an instant as demand in the economy evaporates and as structural fissures in the way our labor market works to begin to show. The unemployment rate for those with bachelors degrees or higher is, after all, a mere 4.3 percent.

But if we’re searching for an emotional motivation for the protests, as Herman Cain seems to be, “jealousy” may not be a complete or satisfying answer. Megan McArdle, the conservative columnist, offers another psychological explanation: fear. “No matter how inflated your expectations may have been, it is no joke to have your confidence that you can support yourself ripped away, and replaced with the horrifying realization that you don’t really understand what the rules are,” McArdle wrote recently. “Yes, even if you have a nose ring.”

  • thumb
    The admission arms race
    From ProPublica, an in-depth look at the ways in which colleges can pump up their stats.
  • thumb
    Home-grown terrorism
    The story of the Boston bombers is still unfolding at high speed, but counterterror officials believe the brothers were Islamic extremists.
  • thumb
    Boston reading guide
    Need to play catch up? Here's a full list of resources for more on what's going on in Boston.