Almost immediately after a small band of activists first occupied Zuccotti Park in September of last year, many in the movement started expressing concern about potential co-option by more established and moderate forces. These concerns have become more central in 2012, an election year. Wariness is certainly warranted. But angst about an over-generalized sense of co-option may be an even bigger problem. We cannot build a large-scale social movement capable of achieving big changes without the involvement of long-standing broad-based institutions. OWS should actively and strategically forge relationships with many of these institutions, while preserving the role of OWS as an “outsider” force.
Much has been made by some news outlets and pundits about the supposed "incoherence" of the Occupy Wall Street protests. "The protesters" don't have a coherent message, we are told. They can't even agree on any solutions. What the heck are they proposing?
Glenn Greenwald asked yesterday whether Occupy Wall Street "can be turned into a Democratic Party movement?". He discusses how the tone of establishment Democrats has quickly shifted and how many in the Party—including the White House—are now clamoring to figure out how to ride the anti-Wall Street populist wave.
Judd Legum of the Center for American Progress even told the New York Times that "Democrats are already looking for ways to mobilize protesters in get-out-the-vote drives for 2012."
A week into the Occupy Wall Street actions in New York, I wrote a short article with perhaps an overly harsh title, Occupy Wall Street: Convergence of a Radical Fringe. I have to admit that I was not very hopeful about the prospects of this mobilization. The rhetoric of the initial call to action seemed out of touch (except for reaching radicals). As inspired by the Arab Spring as I have been this year, I didn't think—and still don't think—you can neatly transplant a tactic from one context to a radically different context. Indeed, history is littered with tragically failed attempts to do so. More to the point though, it looked to me like the brave radicals who kicked this thing off were doing the usual thing of putting their counter-cultural foot forward first, and dooming the action to be locked onto that lonely path, where so many Americans who agree with our populist sentiments are inoculated against us as the messengers.
Why haven't the protests on Wall Street sparked a prairie fire of populist rebellion across the country? Why, when Adbusters called for "reinforcements" did these not magically arrive? Why, if the protesters represent the feelings of "99% of Americans" have so very, very few of those represented bothered to support the initiative in any way at all?
Isn't just about everyone furious with Wall Street right now?
Yes, but turning latent sentiment into coordinated collective action is never as simple as a mere call to action.
But it's easy to see how a contingent of radicals could come to believe the delusion that the right call to action at the right moment is how mass rebellions are ignited. This formula for instantaneous revolution ignores quite a few essentials, including context, organizing, and leadership.
David Campbell and Robert Putnam have an insightful editorial in today's New York Times. In Crashing the Tea Party they summarize their study of national political attitudes (from interviews with a representative sample of 3,000 Americans) and shed some light onto unifying themes and motivations of members of the so-called Tea Party.
Tea Partiers are united in their love of freedom and opposition to "big government", right?
That may be, but, according to Campbell and Putnam, the single biggest predictor of Tea Party involvement is "a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics."
And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek âdeeply religiousâ elected officials, approve of religious leadersâ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Partyâs generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.
This agenda is, according to the authors, far out of line with attitudes of a large majority of Americans. They argue, however, that the official stated emphasis and brand of the Tea Party is more in line with many Americans' "anti-big-government" values (a point I will take some issue with).
Another big predictor of Tea Party participation: whiteness.
They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do. [my emphasis]
There you have it. No disrespect, but the Tea Party is fueled by racism and religious bigotry. Dealing with these folks day-in-and-day-out during the health care fight, this much was abundantly clear to many of us. Now there's some research to back up what we knew in our guts.
How can we make sense of crazy sports riots like the ones that went down last week in Vancouver? How can people get so "up in arms" over a game, while being so resigned about things that really matter?
Let’s say that I care a lot about the war in Iraq, and I start planning with some other folks in my town to put together a public rally to call for an end to the war and occupation. Well, what if we made the rally about the economy too? Everyone cares about the economy, right? Surely more people will come out if we link these two issues. Hey, while we’re at it, immigration is a big issue for a lot of people in our community, and I think we can get this one local immigrant rights organization onboard for our rally. We should at least be able to get someone to speak. And that makes sense. Immigrants are impacted by both the war and the economy. Also, there have been some folks working locally to stop a proposed waste incinerator. We should definitely have someone from that group speak at the rally. Wow, if we list all of these issues on one flyer, then we can attract a lot more people than the folks who would come out just because of the war or any one of the issues on its own.
There are several important flaws to this kind of explicit connect-the-dots approach. It’s not that we shouldn’t be connecting the dots. And it’s not that we shouldn’t have strong moral narratives that can help people make sense of a platform of issues. But a strong moral narrative is different than just throwing a bunch of seemingly disparate issues onto the same flyer and assuming that we’ll be able to connect with anything other than an already highly politicized—and particularly politicized—audience (aka “the usual suspects”). What this kind of approach tends to do is to attract self-selecting individuals who come to the event as individuals. They may come as individuals from many different social backgrounds, with relationships to different social blocs. But these social blocs are not bought in, which means small numbers and few resources for the effort. Rallies are supposed to be demonstrations of grassroots organization and power (in order to leverage pressure to affect political change). But they can all too easily accomplish the opposite of this intention; they can be demonstrations of disorganization, powerlessness, and even incoherence (i.e. disconnection from any organized social base).
Every once in a long while something comes along that inspires progressives all across the country — all at once — and that has the power to reach beyond the boundaries of our progressive circles, to break out of the cognitive boxes we've been placed in, and to associate fresh meanings with old labels.
Last week during a debate with Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at George Washington University, Governor Howard Dean offered a compelling narrative about immigration in the United States:
If Malcolm Gladwell lacks nuance in his dismissal of the contributions of Twitter, Facebook and other new social media to deep social change, that is fully forgivable. The title of the article that kicked off the controversy, "Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted", is a lot pithier than the perhaps more accurate, "Sure, the Revolution may very well be Tweeted, and it may even benefit to an extent from this particular new communication form, but Twitter is not a replacement for the strong social ties that come from face-to-face human interaction." There can be good reason and value in kicking off a conversation with a slightly oversimplified assertion — because it is indeed more likely to incite a reaction and actually kick off a conversation.
To the people of Egypt who are rising up to tear down the barriers to your full participation in a free, socially equitable, and democratic society: