Friday, November 25, 2011

The 0.002446443 Percent

There is something about a widespread and largely spontaneous protest movement that appeals to idealists and the young.

Much of the coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement has reflected this. Most of what I have read has been studiously non-judgmental, if not tacitly supportive. It was a different story with the Tea Party protests of a couple years ago. Many of those people were middle-aged or elderly. The OSW protestors include lots of young people, and that fits in better with romantic notions of protest. They don’t get hit with questions about whether their movement is diverse enough or if they’re just being greedy and selfish.

But if I had protestors camped out on my lawn, I think I would rather have the Tea Party. By all accounts they took all their rubbish with them when they left and did no damage to the places they gathered.

Politically, what the Tea Party had going for it was that the participants were united around a fairly simple idea: limit the size and power of the government. With backing from the Koch brothers, this translated into an effective exercise of political power that changed the actual results of primary and general elections. You may or may not agree with the Tea Party message, but at least there is little doubt about what it wants—or doesn’t want.

Occupy Wall Street has a fairly simple message as well, but it is more of a whinge than a prescription for action. The We Are the 99 Percent web page is full of heartbreaking testimonials to the pain caused by the recession and the achingly slow and weak recovery. The OSW message is that things are not fair and people are hurting. But there is no single message coming out of the movement, that I can discern anyway, suggesting what to do to fix things.

In my previous post, I mentioned my friend Chuck, who was certain that it was only a matter of time until the collapse of the capitalist system would usher in a socialist utopia. I lost touch with Chuck many years ago, so I don’t know if he eventually settled into bourgeois life or if he is still out there laying groundwork for the revolution. Maybe he’s even moved into a tent in one of the OSW encampments. But whether he is there or not, it seems clear that many of the most passionate OSW participants are Chuck’s kindred spirits. They keep waiting for things to get bad enough so that hordes of people from all walks of life will join them in the streets and, at least tacitly, support the radical changes they have always wanted to see.

Their problem, though, is that once they start talking about concrete steps to effect their changes, most Americans will step back. Elections have consistently shown the U.S. to be a center-right country. Mainstream liberal politicians would love to harness the energy of the movement, but that only works if the politicians offer solutions to the problems being protested. And any realistic solutions will necessarily be painful and therefore not popular.

The OSW movement has gotten a lot of traction with the media because of its claim to speak on behalf of the “99 percent.” As far as I can determine, the largest OSW demonstration in New York had a maximum of 20,000 people, by the organizers’ own estimate. (Media estimates were lower.) That’s an impressive number for a demonstration, but it works out to less than 0.3 percent of the population of New York City. It may be true that 99 percent of Americans own only 65.4 percent of the country’s wealth, but in New York less than a third of one percent, at the very most, are out in the streets.

This highlights a paradox of street protests. In countries where citizens have few or no political rights, demonstrations are inherently democratic because they are the only way for people to make their voices heard. But in democratic countries where people elect their government, demonstrations are actually undemocratic because a minority are trying to exert influence out of proportion to their actual numbers.

The problems highlighted by the Occupy Wall Street movement are real and grave. Unfortunately, there is no easy or painless solution to those problems. Even more unfortunately, the movement doesn’t seem likely to coalesce around any viable solution, easy or hard.

No comments:

Post a Comment