NOTE: The views expressed here belong to the individual contributors and not to Princeton University or the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: Occupying the public discourse

Laura Noonan, MPA

Since the inception of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in September, critics and commentators have questioned both the motives and tactics of the populist movement. Perhaps the most common objection is that OWS protestors have failed to focus on a single, unifying demand. To be sure, their concerns are broad, and even at times seemingly conflicting. Issues that have been voiced include protesting social and economic inequality, high unemployment, corporate greed and corruption, and the undue influence of corporations – especially financial services firms – on the political process.

The fact is, their demands are far from simple. While some are fairly tangible (e.g. more progressive tax policies), others (like reducing the influence of Wall Street and corporations on the political process) are much more complex, requiring the overall of deeply-embedded systems.

For that reason alone, it was ultimately beneficial for the OWS movement that protestors were recently forced out of Zuccotti Park in New York City and other locations across the country. While an aggressive tactic such as ”occupation” was perhaps necessary to draw initial attention to their cause, over time it was bound to became a war of attrition, one that would be nearly impossible for the protestors to win given the lack of clear solutions to the issues they are protesting.

Semi-permanent encampments also require intense dedication from protestors, tending to draw a higher proportion of the more extreme (less understood, more easily attacked) supporters, while potentially scaring more moderate compatriots away. I, for instance, care deeply about economic and social inequality, but chose for various reasons not to join the protests. To be ultimately successful, the movement of the 99% must gain more support from the 99% of Americans they claim to represent.

In addition, to make changes within our current political system, the movement would be wise to make the distinction that they are protesting against policies which serve to protect the rich at the expense of the rest of us, not the rich themselves. Warren Buffett, who has come out against regressive tax policies, should serve as an example that the wealthiest 1% of Americans are not always the enemy.

The OWS movement does seem to be moving towards more mainstream acceptance, and is now publicly supported by a coalition of more than 70 liberal organizations, including, several large labor unions, and Planned Parenthood, as well as hundreds of prominent and influential individuals. This could help to provide additional resources, legitimize the movement, and ultimately force a prioritization of demands.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the Occupy Wall Street movement will be able to have the electoral impact needed to achieve many of their stated goals. The Tea Party, a similarly ambitious and unfocused movement, was able to successfully attract candidates to run on a platform representing the movement, and to shift mainstream Republicans’ campaigns in an effort to please Tea Party constituents.

While the long-term impact of the OWS movement is still unclear, it has in many ways already been successful, primarily by starting to reframe the public discourse on inequality.

The top 1% of the individuals in the American economy take home 25% of total income, and own 40% of the wealth. Research has shown that most Americans support a much more equal distribution of resources, but are also optimistically ignorant of the level of inequality that currently exists. But this may be changing as more and more attention is drawn to the issue. The term “income inequality” is appearing more and more frequently in the media, rising from 90 mentions in the week before the protests started to nearly 500 by mid-November.

And while most Americans still think of the United States as a land of opportunity, a 2006 report from the Center for American Progress showed that among high-income countries, only the United Kingdom has a lower rate of intergenerational economic mobility than the United States. For example, children from low-income families in the US have only a 1% chance of reaching the top 5% of the income distribution, versus children of the rich, who have about a 22% chance of doing so. Simply bringing awareness to the current reality has the power to subtly change public opinion that may be based on rosier assumptions.

Getting Americans to understand current social and economic inequalities of opportunity would be an important accomplishment. Whether policies ultimately change to prevent them, however, will depend on whether the country as a whole decides that they no longer find them acceptable.


  1. I agree for the most part and think that the greatest accomplishment of the OWS has been the raised awareness to the issue of income inequality and economic mobility in the United States. But, as a matter of politics, the OWS protesters made it very clear from the beginning that they're not interested in running a status-quo political campaign.

    Maybe I'm misreading your piece, but it sounds to me that your impression is: "Now that OWS no longer has Zuccotti Park, it can start building a political party to craft policies in support of the movement's ideology. Therefore, that OWS got kicked out of Zuccotti Park is a good thing." I don't think the goal of OWS was ever to start a new, progressive political party. Rather, I think the movement's implicit goal was to vent frustration about economic hardship so as to move the political discourse in such a way that takes into consideration that vented frustration -- for example, to give candidates who support progressive policies (like Elizabeth Warren) a base.

    Like you, I care deeply about social and economic inequality and have never attended an OWS protest. Nevertheless, I think it is up to people like you and me to discuss policy issues in light of the OWS movement -- to provide some clarity on the vagueness of the movement's political demands. My point is that the movement was never about starting a political action -- it was about attracting smart people engaged in the policy debate (again, like you and me) in hopes that they would craft policies which take the movement's beliefs into consideration. And in that light, I think it is a bad thing for the movement that they got kicked out of Zuccotti Park, because, in a way, that sense of frustration that was supposed to draw in people engaged in the policy debate has dissipated somewhat. If I'm a progressive policymaker on Capitol Hill, I can now no longer say, "I'm here fighting for these policies for all of those angry folks down at Zuccotti Park, protesting in the dead of winter to create a more equal world and a better society." What does such a policymaker do now?

  2. Joe, you make some excellent points. I agree completely that OWS was not started with the intention of starting a new political party, or of running a traditional political campaign. However, I do think trying to run candidates, or more likely, working to influence the policies supported by more mainstream candidates, is one potential direction in which the movement could go, though it is far from the only one.

    However, I do still think that getting removed from Zuccotti Park was ultimately a good thing for the movement. Here’s why. The movement could not last into perpetuity. There are a few possible ways it could have ended. 1) OWS declares “victory” and retreats only once its demands have been met. I think we can both agree, given the complexity of their demands, and the slow nature of policymaking, that this would be essentially impossible. 2) OWS is allowed to remain in parks indefinitely, but eventually either protesters lose their steam, the media stops paying attention to them, or both. Just how long it would take for the protestors to lose their relevance is debateable, but given the media’s short attention span, this too seems inevitable. 3) The protestors are forcibly kicked out of Zuccotti Park while still at full strength and in the media spotlight. While you feel the “sense of frustration” has dissipated as a result, I think for many, their frustration only increased as the protestors were removed.

    I think what happens next is an open question, but I don’t think OWS would be living up to its full potential if it just continued to camp out for another year.

  3. Thanks for the response! I think your point is fair, and I hope you're right. I would hate to see the OWS movement fade away, because it really has opened up the discussion about income inequality and economic mobility -- which is a very good thing, IMO.

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