The American political system as it is currently constructed is wildly unprepared to focus in any meaningful way on income inequality. The fact that a few platitudes by a Democratic president qualified as a major statement on income inequality is evidence of this. The political system is defined by one party that is committed essentially to making the economically powerful richer and more powerful, and another that is too timid and too dominated by moneyed interests of their own to be able to take a strong position on income inequality. Democrats may be more willing to address issues like marginal tax rates or extending benefits to the unemployed, but these proposals, while generally positive, clearly do not seek to address the fundamental problem of income inequality.
Until Romney releases these tax returns, it is not possible to know what the most damaging thing in them will be; and to some extent it doesn't matter if there is any one specific thing that is very damaging. It is, however, a certainty that Romney's tax returns will continue to tell the story of Romney as an extraordinarily wealthy man whose financial life is very different from those of ordinary Americans, and who has engaged in the kinds of wealthy-person financial shenanigans which, while not illegal, will raise more questions about Romney and his wealth.
Every image of a New York City or Oakland policeman abusing his position, every story about how a veteran or senior citizen was injured by one of these policeman, every image of a university police officer casually pepper spraying a few college students doing nothing more than sitting quietly at a demonstration damages the ability of the U.S. to influence people and governments around the world and provides fodder for those authoritarian leaders who would like to ignore American entreaties before killing or beating up demonstrators in their own countries.
This critique, which could be called the "dirty hippies narrative" is offensive and misleading, but it is also almost quaint, harkening back to a bygone era when it was considered notable if men wore hair past their collars or if women wore dungarees. What is perhaps most interesting about this narrative is that it demonstrates that even though the year is 2011, the Republican Party still seems to think that attacking the other side for how they dress, wear their hair and the like is both a legitimate, and more surprisingly, effective means of building political support.
The Democratic Party finds itself in a different situation as the sitting Democratic president is running unopposed for the nomination and already has a sufficiently enormous lead in fundraising and organization that any primary challenger who would emerge at this point would be badly defeated. The Occupy Wall Street movement is wisely not even talking about running somebody against President Obama in the Democratic Party, but this would be about the best thing that could happen to the Obama campaign. If such a candidate were to emerge, Obama could move to the center now, run up a string of impressive primary victories and use his ample resources to marginalize the Occupy Wall Street, largely through attacking the credentials and credibility of whichever flawed candidate was supported by the Occupy Wall Street. This would put him in a strong position for November especially as once he secured his nomination Obama would then be able to use his resources to again court the activist wing of the party. Additionally, running somebody against Obama would, in of itself, erode much of the Occupy Wall Street movement's support because many liberals would see the movement as seeking to destroy President Obama and behaving counter-productively.
Republicans and other right wingers are not troubled by class warfare in the abstract, otherwise they would have said something during the last three decades when the political and financial leadership of the U.S., with the close support of the Republican, and too frequently, Democratic parties, have waged class warfare on the poor on behalf of the wealthy. Deregulation, cutting social programs and increasingly regressive tax structures have all been part of an effort to shift wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy. This kind of class warfare has been met with no concern at all from the right. When Republicans get upset about class warfare, what they are really angry about is that poor and working people are fighting back. That may be beginning now on Wall Street and elsewhere, leading to such concern from Cantor, Mitt Romney and other conservatives.
In this context, the Occupy Wall Street movement seems particularly notable. It is not yet entirely clear what the specific goals or demands of the Occupy Wall Street movement are, but that is neither a fair nor reasonable question to ask of a movement that appears to be, to a large degree, organic and genuine. The Occupy Wall Street movement appears to be a legitimate expression of the anger and frustration that many ordinary Americans have felt towards the leaders of the banking and finance sector, and the good treatment they have received from the federal government, despite driving the economy into the ground, causing millions to lose their homes, savings or jobs.