Occupy Democracy

Wall Street Protesters can achieve aims in better ways

Over the past weekend, Occupy Wall Street protests have continued to spread in prominence and geographic diversity. At first confined to New York, protests loosely defined as combating greed, excessive capitalism, and restoring democracy have spread to American cities like Boston and as far as Hong Kong. On October 1, the weekend before last, around 700 protesters were arrested in a march on the Brooklyn Bridge. In the meantime, the continuing escalation of the roughly month-long protests has begun to take a strain on police resources and succeeded to some degree in disrupting daily life in Lower Manhattan. While commentators writing from its origins as an American movement have compared Occupy Wall Street as a left-wing version of the Tea Party, others—including those claiming to speak on behalf of the movement—have portrayed the protests as an American “Arab Spring.”

Occupy Wall Street has risen up at a conspicuous period of high unemployment and the United States’ weak emergence from the global recession. However, during this time of increasing joblessness and penny-pinching, many corporate executives and financial elites have continued to become ever wealthier. While it is understandable why so many people, including many young people, are angry at America’s vast inequality and the disproportionate wealth of one percent of the population, Occupy Wall Street is fundamentally misguided in its approach.

More legitimate, appropriate, and effective means would help activists pursue and achieve their goals. The ballot box stands out as a particularly striking example; in the 2008 presidential elections, only 64 percent of the voting-age electorate turned out to vote, despite the galvanizing effect of the Obama candidacy and deep partisan divisions. Local and regional elections regularly witness turnouts of less than 50 percent. Protesters who are right now waging a continuous opposition on the streets to Wall Street might instead use this groundswell of energy to organize voting drives. Assuming that Occupy Wall Street protesters are already politically and electorally active, they should spend time rallying their friends and neighbors to do the same.

One of the greatest fallacies of the protest movement is the implicit theory behind Occupy Wall Street that American democracy is broken. The perception that marginalized individuals are left with no option but to protest is a misguided one. Members of the public have every opportunity to make their voices heard through contacting their local representatives—or choosing to become involved in local government themselves. The comparison by some of Occupy Wall Street to the movements behind the Arab Spring smacks of an inherent self-absorption and inaccuracy. It should be plain to all that revolution in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other countries emerged out of very different circumstances, both economic and political, than those behind American popular protests. Unlike some Middle Eastern countries with authoritarian and endemically corrupt governments, or for that matter, some European states with leaders who appear to live above the law, the United States does not suffer from a chronic lack of democracy. Despite the partisan fighting in Congress and blocking of legislation, our nation retains one of the best-functioning and, ultimately, most transparent political systems. Protesters should recognize the differences between their grievances and those of others, and express them through more conventional means.

In short, the fact that protests against capitalism and greed have been inspired by movements from abroad does not mean that the latter’s methods should be replicated at home. Political activism originates and becomes successful in many different forms. As citizens endowed with political rights, it is a mistake to presume political powerlessness at the level of an anonymous individual. Inevitable allusions to the Tea Party movement themselves throw up a striking indication of how Occupy Wall Street might evolve toward a more coherent, functioning, and legitimate movement. Despite the radicalism of much of its message, the Tea Party developed successfully into a major political force through means that were legal, civil, and entrenched in the tradition of electoral and political activism. The Tea Party did not have a decisive influence on the Republican Party and elections of 2010 through protests and disruption. By following this organizational model, Occupy Wall Street stands a chance of turning into something that is truly worth everyone’s attention.