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Occupy arrives at the Republican Party

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
February 22, 2012 -- Updated 1710 GMT (0110 HKT)
Occupy DC protesters are part of a movement that is having an impact on the GOP race, says Dean Obeidallah.
Occupy DC protesters are part of a movement that is having an impact on the GOP race, says Dean Obeidallah.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Newt Gingrich criticizes Mitt Romney's brand of capitalism; Romney urges help for 99%
  • Dean Obeidallah says GOP talks of income inequality because Americans want to address it
  • He says America has long been a place of economic opportunity
  • Obeidallah: Will Americans' destiny be based on the economic tier they're born into?

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah is a former attorney turned comedian and has appeared on Comedy Central's "Axis of Evil" special, ABC's "The View" and HLN's "The Joy Behar Show." He is co-executive producer of the annual New York Arab-American Comedy Festival and co-director of the upcoming documentary: "The Muslims Are Coming!" Follow him on Twitter.

New York (CNN) -- "Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of people and then walk off with the money?"

"The 1% is doing fine. I want to help the 99%."

The above statements are the type you might expect to hear at an Occupy Wall Street protest. But they weren't uttered there. Instead, the first was from Newt Gingrich and the second was from Mitt Romney.

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah

We now have a war of words launched at the 1% by the 1% -- or in the case of Mitt Romney, the .01%.

These type of populist attacks escalated in the last few days as Gingrich criticized Romney for living "in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts" and for earning "$20 million a year income with no work."

What's going on here?! Have we been transported to some "Bizarro World" where everything is backward? Since when does the Republican Party care about income equality?

Occupy protester: We're not going away
Occupy DC faces camping ban

The answer is simple: These issues are now resonating with voters. More than 60% of voters support policies addressing income inequality.

Indeed, an even higher number support raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

In 1992, Bill Clinton's then-campaign manager, James Carville, famously hung a sign in the campaign office to remind Clinton to focus on the most pressing issue of that presidential race: "It's the economy, stupid." Today, that sign would be updated to read: "It's the income inequality, stupid."

Over the last 10 years, American families have become poorer with the median household income dropping by 7%. Some have termed this a "Lost Decade" as prices have risen, but our buying power has shrunk.

And just as alarming, the number of Americans living in poverty has risen to more than 46 million people, its highest rate since 1993.

At the same time, the rich have become richer. A recent study found the income of the top 1% of Americans almost tripled from 1979 to 2007, increasing by 275%. This means the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us in America is growing.

The only time in America's history that we have witnessed this type of chasm between the wealthy and poor was shortly before the Great Depression.

But as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich detailed in his book "Aftershock," economic growth can only be sustained for prolonged periods of time when the gap between the rich and poor is narrowed. As Reich notes, the top 1% -- no matter how wealthy they become -- cannot alone fuel our consumer-driven economy. Only a vibrant middle class can accomplish that.

If we continue down this path of greater income inequality, I fear the unthinkable could occur: the death of the American dream.

"The American dream" -- at least to me -- is that each generation has the opportunity to live a better life than the one before. Thankfully, we have not been a nation shackled with a socioeconomic caste system. Instead, America has offered the prospect of economic mobility. It is this promise that has inspired Americans to dream big.

The American dream has also inspired millions to immigrate to this nation. My Palestinian father and Sicilian grandparents crossed many oceans to live in a country that offered them opportunity. They both were born in places where if you weren't rich by birth, your prospects for climbing the social ladder were low -- indeed, it would have been cruel even to harbor such dreams since there was almost no chance of realizing them. But America offered them a place to dream.

Years ago I heard U2's Bono sum up the difference between the United States and other nations when it came to economic opportunity. His quote has stayed with me ever since: "In the United States, you look at the guy that lives in the mansion on the hill, and you think, you know, one day, if I work really hard, I could live in that mansion. In Ireland, people look up at the guy in the mansion on the hill and go, 'One day, I'm going to get that bastard.' "

Will we become a nation where our destiny is no longer based on our actions, but on the happenstance of the economic tier we are born into? A nation where we view the wealthy with contempt?

The wealthy paying their fair share of taxes should not be a partisan issue. History has shown that policies to promote greater income equality are good for all Americans both economically and because they preserve the American dream that the rich, the poor -- and everyone in between -- can not only dream but can also achieve a better life for themselves and their family.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

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