Philadelphia, PA, July 27, 2016. Photo by Michael T. Heaney
The 2016 presidential election has been unusual in the extent to which it has generated mobilization from social movements across the ideological spectrum that objected to the basic fairness and legitimacy of the nomination process as it was managed by both major parties. Movements such as Black Lives Matter, the prolife movement, and the Tea Party have openly challenged Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and others. An important question to consider is, what are the potential long-term political consequences likely to result from this short-term spike in mobilization?
Some contemporary observers of American politics have pointed in particular to the campaign of US Senator Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nomination as an opportunity for progressive movements to gain more of a foothold within a party. Specifically, they observed affinities between the Sanders candidacy and the Occupy Wall Street movement, which arose in September 2011 around issues of financial reform, disproportionate influence by corporations, inequality, affordable health care, access to higher education, and participatory democracy. This essay examines the organizational and partisan contexts within which Occupy Wall Street and its allies seek to reshape the Democratic Party. How could the combined efforts of Sanders and the Occupy movement potentially make a difference regarding how the Democrats do business?
In seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, Sanders drew heavily on themes from Occupy Wall Street. He reliably invoked the movement’s catchphrase of “the 1 percent” in his campaign rhetoric. Themes of his campaign included inequality, the decline of the middle class, the influence of money in politics, student debt, and other topics frequently raised at Occupy rallies.
Elements of the Occupy movement responded by supporting Sanders’s candidacy. His unofficial campaign slogan, “Feel the Bern” (or #FeelTheBern), was coined by an Occupy organizer. Some activists returned to Zuccutti Park, the site of the original Occupy encampment, in order to phone bank on behalf of Sanders. More broadly, many former Occupy participants volunteered for the Sanders campaign.
While it is impossible to definitively establish what fraction of Occupy supporters also supported Sanders, it is possible to look to social media for clues of this support. To this end, I gathered a list of 374 Twitter handles and hashtags associated with the Occupy movement that were in operation between 2011 and 2013. From this list, I randomly selected 150 pages for the purpose of content analysis and coded Twitter feeds for these pages from April 2012 and April 2016. The purpose of this exercise was to understand the extent and nature of movement involvement in Democratic Party politics during two identical periods in the presidential election cycle.
The results of the content analysis reveal significant differences in the activities of the Occupy movement between the April 2012 and April 2016 periods. First, the sites examined became significantly less active over time. In April 2012, 59 percent of sites were active, while this fraction fell to 18 percent by 2016. Second, the level of engagement in electoral politics significantly increased from 2012 to 2016 on the Occupy sites that remained active. Third, the tweets shifted significantly from a more negative perspective on politics in 2012 to a more positive perspective in 2016. In 2012, each site had an average of 0.14 positive tweets about candidates/parties, in comparison to an average of 1.16 negative tweets. In 2016, however, tweets had become more balanced, with an average of 8.70 exhibiting positive valance and an average of 6.62 indicating negative valence.
The original organizations in the Occupy movement appeared to become less active from 2012 to 2016 in terms of the number of active Twitter handles and hashtags. But those that did remain active tended to shift their attention toward electoral politics and, in particular, toward one candidate: Bernie Sanders. To the extent that Sanders was discussed, it was with overwhelming positivity. (This analysis was conducted before Bernie Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton, which was met with significant criticism within the Occupy movement.)
The emergent synergy between the Occupy movement and the Sanders campaign was a classic example of a “party in the street” in which activists within a movement and party worked together in order to advance one another’s political objectives. Both Sanders and Occupy took concrete steps toward solidifying this relationship. Sanders supporters used disruptive, Occupy-style tactics to stand up for their candidate during internal Democratic Party sessions, such as in Nevada, and in chanting “no more war” on the floor at this summer’s Democratic National Convention. Sanders endorsed candidates for lower-level offices that embraced his philosophy. After withdrawing from the Democratic primary contest, Sanders founded a new organization, “Our Revolution”, intended to continue to push the Sanders agenda, though this organization has already faced some difficulties. These factors all point to the possibility that the individuals and organizations behind Occupy could assume a long-term place within Democratic Party networks, much as other recent upstarts, such as MoveOn, have done. Such informal structures would put pressure on the party to open decision-making processes to traditionally excluded groups, as Sanders has called for.
Occupy’s interjection of itself into the Sanders campaign is surprising, though, given some aspects of the movement’s history. It is true that Sanders supports Occupy’s issues unambiguously, but the movement has vigorously resisted participation in traditional electoral and party politics. In 2011, some segments of the movement rejected offers of financial and logistical aid from MoveOn by posting profanity-laced advertisements in response. In 2012, I personally observed Occupy activists outside the Democratic National Convention as they shouted down and ended a press conference by Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. When the sacred ground of Zuccotti Park was used for Sanders phone banking in 2016, Sanders volunteers were met with disruption (in the form of Occupy’s signature “mic check” tactic) by other Occupy activists who argued that the movement had rejected working with political candidates during its formation. As the movement is premised, in part, on replacing corrupt electoral institutions with consensus-oriented, grassroots democracy, many Occupiers resist the kind of mainstream politics in which Sanders is immersed.
The transition of Occupy movement activism from the place-based occupations of its origin to its current, largely placeless, existence on the internet, may be at the core of explaining the movement’s change of heart. While both grassroots occupations and online activism are forms of radically decentralized democratic politics, they reflect different opportunity structures for enforcing consensus and exercising veto options. A minority of participants in General Assemblies could stop entreaties between the Democratic Party and Occupy when they began to develop. But the internet permits no such veto power. If some Occupiers want to help a Democratic candidate or candidates on Twitter or Facebook, who is to stop them? Thus, the changing locus of activism has spurred the evolution of a Sanders-Occupy-rooted party in the street.
Still, the potential for success or failure of an Occupy-Democratic alliance rests in the hands of activists themselves. Occupiers are accustomed to deploying an outsider politics that looks a lot different than partisan politics. Outsiders wear t-shirts and carry signs. Partisans wear suits and write checks. Outsiders call for elimination of the rules that marginalize people. Partisans carefully manipulate the rules of the game to serve their ends. Can a group of activists that are accustomed to working with one set of rules readily transition to another? The disruptions and threats of violence propagated by Sanders supporters at the Nevada State Democratic Convention, as well as antics at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, suggest that Occupy activists may not yet be ready to make the switch to party politics. The only thing standing between Occupy movement and its ability to have influence within the Democratic Party may well be its activists’ own preferences to act as a radical flank instead.