By Jeff Goodwin
I agree in a qualified way with the claim that the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has been successful in “changing the conversation” in the United States. In fact, there seems to be a general consensus about this success among sympathetic observers of OWS, a consensus broadly reflected in the second essay dialogue recently posted by Mobilizing Ideas. It seems that liberal and left analysts may disagree about whether the movement has or can develop the capacity to change institutions or state policies, but virtually all are in agreement about the conversation-changing impact of OWS.
But a little more specificity (not to mention research) about the discursive, ideological, and broader cultural effects of OWS is obviously in order. Above all, we should be a lot clearer about whose conversation has supposedly been changed by OWS. We would certainly expect, for example, that the ideas and discourse of people who have actually participated in OWS meetings and protests have been especially influenced by the movement, followed by people who have tracked it closely through sympathetic alternative media. Of course, research may very likely to reveal that most such people were already extremely critical of corporate power and inequality in the U.S.—and were not bashful about saying so—such that the ideological and discursive effects of the movement on these people have not been all that great.
I think it is also likely that some significant number of Americans who have followed OWS through the mainstream corporate media may think and talk about the world in a somewhat different way now. But how large a section of the population? And how deeply has their thinking or conversation changed? I frankly doubt that the thinking of a majority of Americans has been profoundly shaken by OWS—“cognitive liberation” is probably not the right concept here. But perhaps millions of people who did not previously think (or at least say) much about the power of banks and corporations or worry about income inequality now do.
We possess some limited information about OWS’s influence from nation-wide polls—although one must always be careful with such data. The most recent (and best) polling data that I have seen, collected by the Pew Research Center early last December (n=1,521), suggest that some of OWS’s more exuberant supporters may overstate the movement’s impact (at least thus far). According to the Pew poll, 44 percent of Americans say they support OWS, but 35 percent say they oppose it, and a near-majority (49 percent) disapproves of the movement’s tactics (only 29 percent approve of them). More importantly, this division largely reflects preexisting partisan divisions, with a large majority of Democrats supporting OWS and a large majority of Republicans opposing it (about 60 percent in each case).
According to the Pew data, has OWS really “changed the conversation” of ordinary Americans? It is very hard to say. Three-quarters of Americans (76 percent) remain convinced that the national debt is a major threat to their economic well being (which is not at all a central claim of OWS), compared to 56 percent who point to the power of financial institutions. A substantial majority (58 percent) rejects the idea that America is divided into “haves” and “have-nots.” And only a third of Americans (32 percent) thinks that our political system is broken; most think the problem with Congress is simply its current membership (55 percent).
It is true that more Americans think that Wall Street hurts the economy (51 percent) than helps it (36 percent). But Pew points out that opinions on this question have changed little since March 2011, well before OWS appeared on the scene. Similarly, 77 percent of Americans (including a majority of Republicans!) say that there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and corporations, but, again, it is unclear if OWS has dramatically increased this percentage since its emergence last September. Indeed, it could very well be the case that OWS has not changed minds nor dinner-table conversations so much as media discourse. In this view, OWS has succeeded mainly in thrusting ideas and intuitions that are already widely shared into the mass media. Bill Gamson, in his contribution to the essay dialogue, seems to view this as OWS’s signal achievement thus far—and apparently its raison d’etre. According to Gamson,
The single most important thing to understand about the Occupy movements [sic] is that it is primarily a movement about cultural change, not institutional and policy change. Cultural change means changing the nature of political discourse and the various spheres in which it is carried on, especially mass media.
I disagree strongly with Gamson’s claim that OWS is not about institutional as well as cultural change, but let us set this issue to the side. The more immediate question is whether OWS has in fact “changed the conversation” in the mass media.
OWS has obviously received a great deal of media attention. According to AOL, OWS was the eighth most popular news search of 2011, following the Casey Anthony trial, the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, the Arab Spring, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and other stories. But we still await systematic research on how the media has “framed” OWS (e.g., positively or negatively, as a serious or marginal movement, etc.). And we await research on whether (and how) the political discourse that one finds in the mass media has significantly changed over these past few months. But because OWS is what I’ve called an anti-corporate populist movement, I suspect it will find that changing media discourse about the issues that concern it most will be extremely difficult.
Why exactly? The corporate media are not public servants but giant corporations who sell their product primarily to other giant corporations (i.e., advertisers), not individual consumers. As such, they have no interest in promoting challenges to corporations as institutions, capitalism as an economic order, or the privileged political position of corporations and the corporate elite (the infamous 1 percent). Such challenges will be predictably ignored or denigrated by the media—as they were initially in the case of OWS. Or, if these strategies fail, the media will attempt to domesticate or neuter the message of any anti-corporate or anti-capitalist movement. Scholars of movements have known all this—or should have known all this—at least since the publication of Todd Gitlin’s The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (California, 1980).
Let me be clear: The corporate media have no problem publishing or broadcasting stories and editorials about banks and CEOs who are “bad apples.” But by focusing on the putatively egregious (e.g., “greedy”) behavior of particular corporations or executives, these stories implicitly reassure us that our underlying economic and political institutions are fundamentally sound. But the kind of systemic criticisms of corporations and capitalism that are shared by many and perhaps most OWS activists are another matter. As powerful corporations, the mass media simply have no institutional interest in popularizing such criticisms—or the movements that articulate them—even if readers and listeners find them compelling. (By contrast, the media have no such institutional interest that would lead them systematically to support or oppose, say, gay marriage or gun control.)
In sum, I would be quite shocked if research revealed that OWS had significantly changed the political discourse of the corporate media in recent months. Yes, one will presumably find a huge surge since last September in references to keywords like “occupy,” “Wall Street,” and “inequality.” One might find more negative reporting on particular banks and CEOs, and a few more stories about income inequality and the unfortunate power of money in politics. But I predict researchers will find no basic change in the fundamentally positive orientation of the media toward corporations, banks, capitalism, wealthy entrepreneurs, and the two-party system that has served them all so well. And the poor will have remained almost entirely invisible. Don’t expect the media to dwell on the fact that 77 percent of Americans think too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few rich people and corporations!
Of course, supporters of OWS should not find any of this surprising, let alone disheartening. (Elizabeth Cook, in her contribution to the dialogue, surely doesn’t.) The fact that OWS has not, will not, and cannot fundamentally change the political discourse of the corporate media simply means that there are new and unprecedented opportunities for alternative media to tell the truth about OWS and the corporate economy it confronts. The institutionalized conservatism of the most “liberal” media has also been a spur for OWS itself to create new media for directly reaching its partisans and broader publics, starting with the website occupywallst.org. If OWS does succeed in changing the conversations of millions of Americans, and thereby building a stronger movement, it will have to do so through alternative (including its own) media. This is undoubtedly a prerequisite, in fact, for bringing about the institutional change that the movement seeks.