Harnessing Public Discontent

By Holly McCammon

The American public is discontent.   A January 2012 Gallup Poll reports that 80 percent say they are “dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States.”  Similarly, a CBS News Poll finds that 65 percent of those responding say that the country has “pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track” and that the “economy and jobs” pose the most serious problem.  The nation hasn’t seen negative polling numbers like these since the 1970s and the end of the post-war economic boom and an oil crisis that meant long lines at the gas pumps.  Today, there is clear anger and frustration in the American population.  People are angry about the state of the economy, the financial meltdown of 2008, immoral bankers, and political leadership beholden to the wealthy and unwilling to hold those responsible for our economic hardship accountable.  For the Occupy Movement, this discontent presents a profound opportunity to build support for its cause, for its vision of how to make society more democratic, more equal, and more just.

Previous Mobilizing Ideas contributors have pointed out that Occupy already has had important achievements.  As Edwin Amenta shows, the movement has the President’s attention, and Bill Gamson describes some of public’s reactions to the mobilization.  As Marc Dixon so succinctly puts it, Occupy “has got people talking about inequality.”  Dixon, along with Elizabeth Cook, also point to the important influences that the movement has on its participants.  The encampments are free spaces, where activists form close ties and discuss, deliberate, disagree, and decide the movement’s future direction.  Yvonne Yen Liu says in describing Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement that, “camp living has proved to be important preparation in transforming atomized individuals into collectively minded occupiers.”  Social movement scholars would speak of these Occupy influences as political, cultural, and individual movement outcomes, and across the board there is obvious evidence of the Occupy movement’s wide-ranging impact.  A new survey by the Pew Research Center finds that two-thirds of Americans agree that “there are strong conflicts between the rich and poor” in this country.  This is up from only 47 percent saying this just two years ago.  The Occupy movement has been heard.  As Bill Gamson says, first and perhaps foremost, Occupy is about “cultural change.”  And if the Tea Party movement was able to shape the national debate immediately after the financial collapse, the Occupy movement now has the stage to fundamentally shape the national political discourse as we head into a presidential election year, and this has the potential of having long-term and lasting effects.

But what might happen next for the movement?  Predicting the future, of course, is risky business, and I hesitate to pose this question.  So let me restate the question:  what can we draw from our knowledge about social movements and their successes to consider what may be possible for Occupy?  Clearly, social movement activists are agents of social change.  Social movement researchers have produced many studies documenting the political, cultural, and individual-level changes that movement activism can bring about.  But activists contend with many challenges and obstacles as they pursue their agenda.  They often confront segments in the population that are hostile to their vision, agents of social control charged with reining in or halting protest altogether, and even apathy and resignation that can sap a movement’s strength.  Occupy faces all of these.  But at the same time, the Occupy Movement has reached the public limelight at a time of great discontent, with many looking for leadership and vision to move toward a stronger, more equal and just future.  So how can the Occupy Movement capture or harness these sentiment pools of discontent?

One signal that the disgruntled American population has sent to Occupy protesters is that many are uncertain about what the movement stands for, what its goals are, and what it hopes to achieve.  Occupy protesters would do well to respond to this signal.  We know from scholarship that tactics and strategies are more effective when they “fit” the broader cultural and political environment, that is, when they respond carefully and thoughtfully to signals from the wider milieu.  For instance, Edwin Amenta’s research shows that more assertive tactics are needed in more hostile political environments.  David Snow and Robert Benford, who study social movement framing, describe how the arguments used by activists should draw on and resonate with beliefs that are widely-held in society.  My own research and that of Isaac Martin suggest that advocates of reform should proceed strategically and proactively, explicitly cognizant of developing and utilizing tactics and voicing demands that will have maximum effect in moving a group toward its goals.  Marshall Ganz and Kenneth Andrews, in their work, describe how activists can best foster a strategic orientation in their groups, through decision-making processes that propel strategic decision making.

There are indications that the Occupy Movement has heard and is responding to the public’s signal that it needs more information about Occupy.  Proposals are being floated in the movement (The 99 Percent Declaration, Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, and the Liberty Square Blueprint), but given the decentralized and highly democratic structure of Occupy, the public will have to be a bit patient.  Formulating a precise agenda and goals will (and should) take time to emerge.  Democracy, after all, can be a slow and even messy process.

We know that the Occupy movement draws from a diverse base, with young and old, women and men alike finding a place within its ranks.  Over 600 communities around the U.S. (not to mention even more around the globe) have held protests or have encampments.  Thus, the movement is already geographically diverse.  Counts of protesters in Zuccotti Park in New York City show that the unemployed and the employed are both represented, and while few Republicans join in, both Democrats and Independents have a pronounced presence.  But there is some indication that ethnic minorities may be underrepresented in the movement, with African Americans, Latinos and Asians coming out in smaller numbers than their representation in the general population.  This suggests an important step for the movement, more fully diversifying itself.  African Americans and Latinos have been hard hit by the Great Recession, and growing support among these constituencies could add importantly to the movement’s size and public presence.

We know that broad coalitions can mean greater political power.  Ties between the Occupy Movement and the labor movement have been and are being forged, as Marc Dixon discusses.  As Elizabeth Cook points out, links to homeless activists, given the encampment tactic, is a natural fit.  In my home city of Nashville, when Occupy Nashville members tangled with the state government over the right of the activists to camp in public space downtown, the American Civil Liberties Union stepped in to provide legal expertise, arguing and winning the legal dispute for the Occupiers. International ties have been established with Egyptian protesters expressing support for Occupy Wall Street, and Lorenzo Bosi and Eduardo Romanos make clear what U.S. Occupiers can learn from their international counterparts.  Some of the alliances with the broader progressive community forged by the Occupy movement may be short-lived; some may be longer-term.  Some may be easy and others fraught with tensions, but progressive coalition politics can provide resources, person-power, and expertise to fuel movement activism.

Saul Alinsky says that protesters should “keep the pressure on,” and research supports his advice, showing that activists who engage in the ongoing pursuit of their goals learn from their efforts, gain expertise, and apply that knowledge.  As a result, ultimately, they can succeed in their actions, even in the face of recalcitrant opposition.  The U.S. Occupy Movement is well-positioned to harness the public’s anger over the economic collapse, questionable actions in the financial industry, and the corruption of democracy by moneyed interests.  The movement is well-poised to mobilize and politicize these frustrations, all toward making this society a more just, democratic, and equitable place.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Outcomes of OWS

One response to “Harnessing Public Discontent

  1. Pingback: People Find Ways And Means And Hope | Living History

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