The objectives of the Occupy Wall Street movement may be fuzzy, but as the demonstrations spread, there's no doubt that they're tapping deep reservoirs of angst and resentment.
In much of America, the recession hasn't ended. Incomes are falling, unemployment is not. Yet the rich are prospering, and Wall Street banks that made a killing during the boom haven't paid any price for their role in the bust.
As it's grown, Occupy Wall Street has started focusing on disparity, fairness, justice. These could become powerful campaign themes, causing discomfort for both major parties. But it remains to be seen whether the upstart movement can be harnessed into an effective political force for the 2012 election.
For now, the demonstrators are mocked by the right — "a collection of ne'er-do-wells raging against Wall Street, or something," the Wall Street Journal sniffed — but they aren't so different from a movement praised by conservatives, the tea party.
Both were spawned by economic insecurity and a conviction that the political and economic systems aren't working. Both started with street demonstrations and vague demands, and both quickly grew too big to be ignored.
For the most part, the Occupy Wall Street crowd seems younger than the tea party faithful. And where the tea party is unified by distrust for big government, Occupy Wall Street doesn't trust big banks or big government.
On that score, they're in sync with a solid majority of Americans.
According to a new Washington Post-ABC News Poll, only 29 percent of Americans have a favorable view of government in Washington They like Wall Street bankers even less, with just a 22 percent favorable rating for financial institutions. Even the news media fared better in the national survey.
The antipathy reflected in the poll helps explain why a scruffy demonstration in lower Manhattan spread into a national movement, with Occupy groups from Portland, Maine to San Diego and McAllen, Texas to Fargo, N.D. The first local demonstrations are scheduled today in the Sonoma Plaza and Saturday at Santa Rosa City Hall.
These demonstrators may not represent the 99 percent they claim, but they aren't uninformed. And if they're waging class war, as some critics say, they have some compelling numbers on their side.
The nation's unemployment rate is over 9 percent; it's higher still in California. The poverty rate has climbed three years in a row, and inflation-adjusted household income has fallen 6.7 percent since 2009, when economists say the recession ended.
Meanwhile, as the New York Times reported recently, corporate profits are at the highest level as a share of the economy since 1950, while wages are at their lowest point as a share of the economy since the mid-1950s. As billionaire Warren Buffett pointed out, channeling Ronald Reagan, many investors pay taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries.
Financial institutions have effectively blocked nearly all of the regulatory reforms that were proposed when they lined up for federal bailouts. Adding to the public's contempt are nickel-and-dime fees, such as Bank of America's new $5-a-month charge for debit cards.
Fed chairman Ben Bernanke may be a target of the demonstrators, but he succinctly described the sense of betrayal felt by many Americans.
"They blame, with some justification, the problems in the financial sector for getting us into this mess, and they're dissatisfied with the policy response here in Washington," he told a congressional committee last week. "And at some level I can't blame them."