Three years ago, a diverse collection of protestors began assembling in New York City’s Zuccotti Park. Known as Occupy Wall Street for their opposition to large financial institutions on Wall Street, their numbers swelled for a time. But after a series of drug arrests and assaults, combined with deplorable sanitary conditions, the protestors were forced out in mid-November.
The movement got a huge amount of media attention, and pollsters tested the waters. Were Americans turning against Wall Street and the free enterprise system? How did they view inequality? We watched the polls closely at the time and have continued to monitor them. Views about Wall Street deteriorated sharply after the financial crash. A large majority told Harris pollsters that most people on Wall Street would be willing to break the law if they believed they could make a lot of money and get away with it. Just 30% in 2009 felt that most successful people on Wall Street deserved to make the kind of money they earned. At the same time, however, solid majorities told pollsters that Wall Street is absolutely essential because it provides the money businesses have to have for investment. Support for the free enterprise system remained strong, and when the Occupy protestors condemned it, public opinion turned against the movement.
What about inequality? Polls taken in the past few years show growing awareness of inequality though it has never been a top-tier issue in terms of popular concern. The deep downturn after 2008 has affected our views about mobility. In 2001, 76% told Gallup interviewers they were satisfied with Americans’ opportunities to get ahead by working hard. That’s now 54%.
And what should government do? Here the polls are instructive. In the abstract, people tell pollsters government should act to reduce the gap between rich and poor. But large majorities do not think this is a government responsibility. When asked by one pollster to think about the gap between the rich and everyone else, people split pretty evenly about whether it would be better for government to implement policies designed to reduce it or whether it would be better for government to stand aside and let the market operate freely even if the gap gets wider. That question has been asked three times, and the results are displayed here.
Is there still enough anger about the inequality to recharge an Occupy movement? Given the equivocation in the polls over Wall Street and the government’s role in fixing inequality, it seems that the answer is no.
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