Forget the wildest images, the ones that make Occupy Wall Street look like a Phish concert in the middle of Manhattan. What's really troubling about this growing protest movement is that the politicians and pundits continue to get it so wrong.

OWS protesters are too often written off as commies or miscreants, playing drums and having sex under blankets, with no focused demands that make any sense at all.

But I recently spent a fair amount of time in occupied Zuccotti Park in New York, talking with OWS protesters and supporters, and I can tell you this: They have several crystal-clear messages about what's wrong with America's system and what needs to be fixed.

Indeed, the substantial support being shown for Occupy Wall Street — protests have gone global, and organizers have raised $300,000 in donations — shows that this group has touched powerful undercurrents of concern that are shared by many. In fact, several of the chief complaints you hear from protesters are shared by the commentators on the right and members of the Tea Party that preceded the Occupy movement — even if the solutions offered are often very different.

To be sure, the protests have also attracted plenty of oddballs, as would any large gathering in New York City. They attract the fringe from the left just as Tea Party gatherings bring in oddballs from the right. But the core Occupy Wall Street demands, some found on the web as well as in the park, reflect fairly mainstream worries that should be front and center as the U.S. debates what's wrong with their economy and politics.

Message No. 1: Growing income disparities threaten everyone
This isn't about "resenting the rich for being wealthy" or declaring "class warfare," though many observers, particularly conservatives, twist the message to discredit the protesters.

Rather, Occupy Wall Street is highlighting a real economic trend that's not good for the U.S. While the super-rich keep getting richer, "living standards for the median household have declined more or less steadily since the late 1990s," says Mark Zandi, the chief economist and a co-founder of Moody's Analytics. Here are some stats that back this up:

  • Between 1993 and 2008, the top one per cent of families raked in more than half the gains in overall income, according to Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley. And from 2002 to 2007, the top one per cent of U.S. earners got two-thirds of all income gains. Their income grew by more than 10 per cent a year after inflation, while the rest, the 99 per cent, saw more-modest income gains of just 1.3 per cent a year.
  • In 2010, median household income, $49,500, fell back to levels last seen in 1996.
  • The 2010 poverty rate was the highest since 1993, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And the number of people in poverty, 46.2 million, was the largest in the 52 years of tracking poverty estimates.
  • CEOs, on the other hand, earned much more than they did several decades ago on average.
  • Unemployment remains stubbornly high, more or less stuck in the nine per cent-plus range since May 2009. Unemployment hasn't been this high since 1982-83.

OK, so we all know the rich are getting richer and the rest of us not so much. But is this a real problem or just jealousy? "When people think they deserve to be in the middle class but fall out, it is not healthy in terms of social order," says Dorian Warren, a professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. "It builds resentment. There's this sense that the American Dream is not longer a reality."

In fact, much of the post-World War II period saw a rising tide lift all boats. The rich got richer and the middle class did, too. Now, that doesn't seem to be the case. The results? Many people simply stop spending — which, in America's consumer economy, hurts the rich, poor and everyone in between. Some permanently drop out of the economic system altogether. Others lose faith in the country. A few take to the streets as social unrest grows.
The OWS protests and those they've inspired could be the beginning of this trend. "People sense there is fundamental injustice because there is such a disparity in income," Karanja Gacuca, a spokesman for OWS, told me last week. "People sense that there is something broken."