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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Protest Movements 101

David Johnston of Reuters opined on October 7, 2011, the Occupy Wall Street “protests show signs of sparking a major change in U.S. politics by creating common ground among people with wildly divergent views. The key to their significance will be whether they foster a wholesale change in political leadership in 2013 or whether Americans return a vast majority of incumbents in both parties at all levels of government.” But are “wildly divergent views” really represented, and did the movement translate dramatic camera-ready protest parades and sit-ins into grassroots work to get specifically anti-corporate candidates past the primaries and into office in 2012?  I contend that from the get-go, the Occupy Wall Street movement set itself on a trajectory antithetical to being able to answer both of these questions in the affirmative. In so doing, the movement’s “non-leaders” sowed the seeds of the movement’s demise—or at the very least of being relegated as partisan and thus contained as a sub-part in the system.

In terms of a diversity of views, a poster board in McPherson Square, where “Occupy D.C.” pitched camp, listed, according to USA Today, “the group’s wide-ranging goals, including economic justice, education reform, repealing the Patriot Act, District of Columbia home rule and an end of the two-party system.” One protester claimed all these agendas are related because, “Everyone has a voice here.” That doesn’t really explain why the goals are related. I contend that the reason is because the group is populated by liberal Democrats.

While symmetrical with the Tea Party in the Republican Party, my pigeon-holing of the Occupy Wall Street movement deprives it of the anti-big-business populism that is salient in much of the Tea Party. Indeed, traditional agrarian Republicanism contained a strident thread of anti-corporatism, as big business, like big government, is fully capable of trampling over the individual. As Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY) used to say on the U.S. Senate floor, “I’m for the little guy.” This is vintage Republican populism, which the “Occupy Wall Street” excluded from the get-go by failing to delimit itself in terms of topics. In other words, the “Occupy Party” may be undercutting itself by association.

It is in the corporate interest that the movement be relegated as partisan and left-wing. It is in the political interest (and comfort) of Republican officials to keep the movement from engaging in joint operations with Tea Party organizations or absorbing some Tea Party members; that would essentially muzzle representatives like Eric Cantor who would not want to insult those members.

The movement’s organizers (and there are leaders even if they claim to have a “leaderless” movement) failed to resist the ideological temptation to permit liberal Democrats who are “off topic” with respect to Wall Street and big business generally and with respect to government officials to join in anyway. Even apart from being stigmatized as simply partisan, the group ran the risk of running off course, like a sailboat without a rudder in the water. The boat goes wherever the wind takes it. To get an idea of how even just one protest event can slide, a nebulous “Stop the Machine” protest in Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C. on October 6, 2011 “was intended to protest the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan . . . but morphed into a multigroup demonstration that decried corporate greed as well as drone attacks.” Even the best placed intentions can find themselves on the losing end of a “morphing” if the boat had no rudder in the water. So a protest event against the corporate takeover of Congress (i.e., a plutocracy) could easily morph into an anti-war rally where pot-smokers beat bongos and dance in tie-dye shirts, while singing songs from another century that was anything but peace and love. While convenient and fun to the protesters, they would quickly lose credibility in much of the wider American society. Considering how much of that society might subscribe to an anti-Wall Street and big business lobby movement, the ideological convenience came at a steep, though perhaps hidden, cost.

As far as the impact of the Occupy Wall Street movement on the primaries and general election in 2012, the most likely scenario is that turnout of liberal Democrats gets a boost. This marginal impact would be indirect, rather than from a deliberate strategy in the movement to transition protesters into campaign volunteers for anti-corporate candidates urged to run by the movement. Ideally, such candidates could be found and supported for the primaries of both of the major parties. For example, agrarian populist Republicans could readily support a Republican candidate who advocates repealing the “legal person” corporate judicial doctrine (and thus corporate political spending), capping executive compensation on Wall Street, and breaking up the banks as well as companies that are too big to fail (or simply a danger to the republic form of governance).  In short, the notion that there is no ceiling for economic liberty can be replaced by a social-contract notion of solidarity based in the viability of a republic form of government and of market competition. As such, the movement’s goals could easily have been bipartisan, with only the Rockefeller Republicans in opposition.  Alas, so close but so, so far.

Had the Occupy Wall Street movement’s leaders been oriented to getting specifically anti-corporate candidates elected on both sides of the aisle, the movement would have limited itself to a few specific policy proporals. The very existence of the mega-corporation (and the mega-compensation levels) could have been at issue. Indeed, specific proposals capable of fundamentally redefining capitalism from its mega-corporate (with mega-lobbies) variety could have been linked to setting up and supporting particular candidates for a variety of state and federal offices. The movement’s leaders would have had to bend over backwards to make sure that Republican populist (e.g., agrarian) candidates were given just as much support. This would likely have included supporting some Tea Party candidates—the movement’s litmus test being stridently narrow yet uncompromising on providing the corporations with some loop holes or watered-down policies. Most importantly, for the movement to have succeeded in terms of policy would have meant supporting candidates who are not liberal! It could almost be said that such self-discipline alone would merit success at the ballot box. In contrast, taking the road most convenient has meant that making a radical change in corporate capitalism is not likely, at least from the “Occupy Wall Street” crowd.

Consider the following observation from Brendan Burke, a truck driver and punk rock musician who studied philosophy in college. “I have heard a thousand different things people are concerned about — inadequate teacher pay, no jobs, the rich not paying their fair share of taxes and all of it was about how we working people are not getting a fair shake.” The thousand points of light here sound to me like a grab-bag from the left wing of the Democratic Party. A small town Republican who is skeptical of big business (and big government) would naturally take one look at these causes and view the entire enterprise as partisan and left-wing. In other words, Burke’s observation confirms my sense that the movement quickly tracked to the liberal Democrat agenda writ large without even attempting to achieve a sufficient focus either on topic or on grass roots mobilization to significantly change the election results in 2012. At most, liberal Democrats will be more likely to make it to the ballot box on election-day in November, 2012. The usual suspects re-elected who had been sympathetic to the movement will have no fire under their bellies to maintain the movement’s push for fundamental change. Once again, real change will be in terms of incremental regulations rather than systemic change. Perhaps this is simply how American governance gets done.

If I am correct in my prediction, the culprit is none other than ideological selfishness or greed at the expense of driving home one radical change. It is ironic that greed (i.e., the desire for more) compromises efforts to curtail monetary greed. Perhaps the protesters were so upset in part because they knew deep down that they shared something with the bankers on Wall street: being driven by an unwillingness to resist the temptation to have more of whatever is in line with self-interest. I suspect that the corporate (and political) elite depended on this selfishness to derail the protest movement, and the protesters did not disappoint.

Given the immense wealth (and thus power) that the large American corporations and banks have, I am utterly astonished that a window could open even a crack to occasion a societal decision on whether the large corporation—the so-called “legal person”—should continue to exist in the United States. Less astonishing, the window began to close even as the movement was beginning to spread. It was a self-inflicted wound. The movement’s fate, as if predestined, will likely be taken to mean that the modern corporation itself has become virtually untouchable, meaning that it cannot be challenged politically within the system. The mega-corporate form thus ensconced in American society, pressure from the related increasing economic inequality will likely build until the system ultimately bursts open, at a much, much greater cost.

There are indeed huge costs in keeping the party going, whether in Goldman Sachs’ tower or on the street below. I suspect that neither Wall Street nor its antagonists—both of whom have been acting like predictable character-actors— grasp this point; both appear so narrow-minded yet proud. I can’t be wrong, they were undoubtedly thinking as they gazed at each other in 2011 from afar. The bankers refused even to acknowledge any culpability for the financial crisis of 2008 and the protesters were so sure they were on the right side of truth that they provided free admission to virtually any friendly agenda. What if a pro-life protester had shown up?

It would be nice if the great silent majority—those Americans who simply go about their daily business while quietly but astutely observing Wall Street and the protesters from afar—would take the reins from the arrogant and the proud in order to enact systemic change. At least from the vantage-point of a decade into the twentieth century, I suspect that many ordinary Americans like you and me had come to the uncomfortable conclusion that our political-economic system had in all likelihood been wrecked along the rocks of unbridled ambition. At the very least, many of us probably felt that, given the financial crisis of 2008 and the consolidation of special-interest power in Washington, both the financial system and the federal system were in need of major repairs, but had received only fine-tuning at most from vested interests. In other words, most citizens were probably wondering: where are the adults? It is indeed difficult to detect any such creatures among either the childish CEOs, such as Fuld (truly a lunatic), Coyne (a card-playing child), O’Neil (an insecure tyrant), Thain (selfishness incarnate) and Lewis (just plain dumb), or the angry yet somehow playful protesters. Tweedledum and Tweedledee could not put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Unfortunately, there is no Mother Goose either; sorry to say, but I'm afraid we must tackle the hard egg ourselves. Hopefully, we will muster the requisite determination before that egg completely spoils amid the stench of the sordid spoils of corporate capitalism in the stygian halls of Congress.

See related essays: "Occupying Wall Street" and "A Self-Regulated Protest?"


David C. Johnston, “Occupy Wall Street,” Reuters, October 7, 2011. 

Donna L. Leger, “Protesting ‘Occupiers’ Spread Message Beyond Wall St.,” USA Today, October 7, 2011.