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Straight talk 2.0

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / October 13, 2011

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My, how times have changed.

What was once the campaign platform of a gray-haired Republican candidate for president is now the motivation for a dreadlocked 21-year-old Occupy Boston protester.

“There is corruption in the government,’’ Hilary Richard said Tuesday afternoon, explaining why she has joined the growing encampment on the Greenway at Dewey Square. “Big corporations are allowed to fund politics and influence government. That’s against everything we were founded upon. The constitution is based on the rights of the people, and on government listening to the people, and that hasn’t been happening.’’

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that I spent months on a campaign bus listening to John McCain making this same argument, over and over. In 2000, the Arizona senator rode his campaign finance reform message all the way to a spectacular victory in the New Hampshire primary.

But that was then. The planets have shifted.

And with them, John McCain. The Captain of the Straight Talk Express turned his back on the issue that defined him, falling in line as much of the country lurched off to the right. We got the ascendance of Fox News, the rise of the Tea Party movement, and the growing hatred not just of big government, but of government, period. We got Medicare-dependent Tea Partiers arguing, without apparent irony, the feds have no legitimate role in their lives.

We got a Republican House so in thrall to that point of view - so obsessed with shrinking government, so determined to avoid raising a cent of new revenue - that they’re willing to drive the country into a ditch to make their point.

Along the way, we also got the Citizens United decision from the Supreme Court, which ushered in an era of naked corporate influence over politics that makes what McCain feared seem like . . . a tea party.

The capital-T Tea Party perspective had a long run dominating public debate, even in the face of the financial collapse, even as the middle class suffered the consequences of the budget cuts they demanded. They seemed to own the megaphone.

Until now. The protesters in Dewey Square (and all over the country) may not have their entire manifesto nailed down, but they are doing something much more important than heralding the much-maligned Greenway’s arrival as a civic space: They’re speaking for many who haven’t had a real voice until now. And that’s healthy for everyone - even those who disagree with them.

Despite their characterization as homeless anarchist hippie slackers, what they’re saying isn’t especially radical. Spend some time talking to the campers at Dewey Square - gathering to hear speakers on a soap box, visiting the food tent for donated meals, spending time meditating in the camp’s spiritual space, waving to supportive motorists - and that quickly becomes clear.

“I’m hoping this protest and others around the country will get politicians to sit up and take notice,’’ said Michael Zahniser, 29, a software engineer. “They can’t just listen to corporations and the rich and the powerful,’’ he said. “Rich people paying at least as much in taxes as their secretaries seems like an obvious thing.’’

“We want real economic reform on Wall Street, and getting special interests out of government,’’ said Jason Potteiger, 25, an organizer in a shirt and tie. “They criticize us for not having a message, but that’s pretty clear.’’

It is. Sure, there are homeless people in Dewey Square. And dreadlocks. And maybe an anarchist or two. But listen to what they’re saying: It owes far more to Main Street than Woodstock. It’s straight talk we need to hear.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com