The Occupy Wall Street movement, and its offshoots in cities around the United States and the globe, has inspired both passion and controversy. Issues highlighted by the movement, including lax corporate regulation, greed, and income inequality, have struck a nerve with a broad range of individuals. However, questions remain over the movement’s aims, whether the protests can actually force change, and what kind of impact the movement will have on electoral politics. This Weekly Focus will attempt to cut through the highly polarized coverage to determine exactly what the future of this and similar movements might hold.
The protests themselves seem to have originated in a rally on September 17th near Wall Street that drew just over 1,000 people. A variety of liberal bloggers and internet organizations had been calling for movements similar to those in the Middle East, intending to substitute a revolution against authoritarianism with one against income equality. The movement began to grow as it gained attention from the liberal blogosphere and attendance quickly swelled with new attendees, mainly students.
On September 24th, videos spread quickly across the internet showing police pepper spraying protesters in brutal fashion. The videos had their intended affect and mobilized more individuals to attend protests. On October 5th, labor unions, including the AFL-CIO, announced their support for the movement. The support of unions dramatically increased the number of people protesting, and also changed the perception that the protesters were merely college students and the unemployed. The movement spread to other cities around the United States and in several different countries, continuing to gain media coverage.
How Long Can They Last?
The Occupy Wall Street movement was borne out of outrage against income inequality and corporate influence over government. It is sustained by its image as an important and timely outburst of popular sentiment. This aspect has a snowball effect, in which a greater number of protesters lead to an increased image of the movement being important, meaningful, and for some youths involved, cool.
Ironically, one factor that has given the Occupy movement momentum could also limit its longevity; there is no united platform. This has allowed the protest to attract people who are fed up with almost anything regarding business or the government’s handling of the economy; the movement is composed of the entire political spectrum, from would be socialist revolutionaries to average workers on their lunch breaks. While this has enlarged the protest, it has also diluted the movement’s message and created fractious sentiment among its members. There is no list of goals or demands from the protesters, meaning that politicians can interpret almost anything they want from the movement instead of making actual changes. Even more importantly, the lack of organization means that at the end of the day, businessmen and politicians can—and probably will—simply go about their days as usual while the protest burns itself out.
Furthermore, the protests risk devolving into a phenomenon more social than political. While rumors of a Radiohead concert at the movement’s center in New York have been denied by the band, a similar event would risk turning the movement into a mere festival, something with far less meaning and impact. Going international, with protests occurring throughout Europe in recent days, adds to the movement’s media image but has little impact on politicians in the United States. Growth of the movement in different cities demonstrates a groundswell of public sentiment but without some sense of coherence or connection, could simply die out. This disorganization gives little impetus for change in the institutions that are being occupied and negatively affects the longevity of the movement as whole.
The Future of the Movement: Flash Flood or River of Change?
The Occupy Movement claims that the protest and sit-ins are only the beginning. But with an unclear foundation of what the movement actually stands for, its future rests on shaky ground. Support from Congressmen and unions gave the protest a layer of legitimacy, but the transition from individual protesters and protests to an organized political movement is a daunting hurdle. Supporters will have to evolve from daily sign-holders to maintaining the larger responsibilities that come with a more sophisticated organization.
The Republican elements of Congress seem to have little attention for the Occupy Movement but if the group can affect the Democratic Party’s platform, it could have a serious impact on the 2012 election. The biggest question for many observers is how much, if at all, the Occupy movement will push the Democratic Party to the left. Many have gone so far as to claim that the Occupy movement could be the Left’s answer to the Tea Party in the upcoming elections. The Tea party started out in a similarly disorganized and populist fashion and transformed into an organization that had a dramatic impact on the 2010 midterm elections.
There are two ways in which the Occupy movement could have a similar impact. First, it could be co-opted into the Democratic fold, becoming an activist wing of the party. This would be the path most similar to the Tea Party’s and is certainly plausible. Yet this would limit the movement’s ability to force change as it would be obliged to work with more moderate Democratic party members to define the agenda. Otherwise, party leaders could simply incorporate demands into their talking points and win votes from the movement without dramatic change to their platforms. Second, the movement could launch a more independent grassroots effort for the 2012 election. This would serve to motivate the voter base better by keeping closer to the uniqueness of the protest and wouldn’t necessarily need to have a clear party platform. Although this would be much more difficult for the Occupy movement to pull off, it also represents the clearest path to advocating their agenda for a radical change in the political environment.
Both of these possibilities necessitate organization and the creation of a platform. Without that, the protest will dissolve without producing any real change. Although the protesters camping out on Wall Street and other city centers are incredibly passionate, their movement has yet to move beyond simply a sustained protest. Political goals require political action, which itself requires political organization. If the Occupy movement continues to lack all of these, the movement may slow to a standstill.