#OWS and Governing

by Cosmo Houck

Since the very beginning, people have been wondering if and how OWS will assimilate into the political mainstream. From Democrats hoping to co-opt populist outrage, to Republicans sneering at a protest movement that appears to have little desire to pursue political success through elections, a continuing theme has been: what’s next?

Two weeks ago Julian Sanchez and W.W. broached that topic once again, something I started to get into last Monday. I wanted to bring up their blog posts because I found them to be both thoughtful and misguided, as well as indicative of a particular common strain in criticism of the OWS protesters.

Both writers take issue (justifiably) in what they see as a false dichotomy: that of the 99% vs. the 1%. Sanchez sets this up by fairly assessing what many people have a problem with about the protests–far from representing everyone, they appear to be a pretty select group of generally liberal activists who are monopolizing public space for their own select usage. In my post last Monday, I talked a bit about why I think that’s ok, but it’s still a relevant point. When protesters chant that they are the 99%, they aren’t really–plenty of people outside of the top 1% in this country disagree with them.

Allow me a brief digression: I mainly think this is a relevant point because of the curious sort of life the slogan has taken on.

It has its roots in this Vanity Fair article from awhile ago, which simply makes the point that there is an enormous inequality gap between the top 1% of Americans and everyone else. When protesters chant “we are the 99%”, presumably they mean “we are part of the 99% of Americans who have considerably less than the top 1% of Americans and we think that is unfair”. While more accurate and less confusing, the second statement makes for a considerably less catchy chant.

I suspect, however, that somewhere in shouting “we are the 99%” over and over, and making that the primary message, many protesters have begun to feel as if they accurately represent the opinions of most Americans–or what those opinions would be, if it weren’t for the nefarious 1% misleading everybody. It’s this sentiment that Sanchez and W.W. take issue with, but I thought it would be worth pointing out the factual content of the slogan as well. Digression over.

Anyway, the reason this is important is because Sanchez and W.W. think the 99% framing device encourages the perception amongst protesters that 99% of us really are in accord, and if it weren’t for the 1% we’d be able to solve our problems and everything would be great and there’d be rainbows everywhere and whatever. Here’s Sanchez on this problem:

Against that background, it’s instructive that so many OWS organizers have cited Tahrir Square as an inspiration. In much of the Arab world, after all, the problem isn’t so much resolving democratic disagreement as getting to the point where there are regular, free elections whose results are respected. However broken our system might be, we’ve at least gotten that far. In that context, though, once protest has successfully drawn public attention to an issue, it seems like the next step should be to get on with the messy and prosaic business of debating and deliberating on concrete reforms with those who have different views. If the people all (or nearly all) want the same thing, but an oppressive authority refuses to act on that shared desire, debate and deliberation are beside the point: There’s nothing to do but throw your bodies on the gears until the rulers have no choice but to comply.  My sense is that many of the OWS folks think that’s more or less the situation we are in. Spend a few weeks in a self-selected community, and perhaps it becomes possible to believe that 99% of us really are all on the same page—or at least, would be if we weren’t brainwashed by the 1%. This has long been a major strain in conservative thinking: Everyone would see that our views are just simple common sense—obviously correct!—if not for a liberal media cabal systematically lying to people all day. Dark as this sounds, it’s utopian in one sense: It implies we’d all agree but for the malign influence of this or that small but powerful group.

I think Sanchez’s analysis is perfectly fair, in many ways. And yet, in his narrative, the possibility that those crazy utopian extremes on either the left or right could possibly be correct is dismissed. Now look, I don’t think everyone’s being brainwashed by the 1%. But I do think it’s telling that Sanchez, in concluding his post, writes “I’m neither cynical enough to believe that our deeply flawed democracy is a complete sham, nor optimistic enough to hope the appearance of fundamental political conflict is a stage production masking an underlying harmony.” It’s telling that to him, those two things–a sham democracy, and one in which politicians secretly agree–are oppositional, whereas in my mind, I’m deathly afraid that we have both of them, right now. Indeed, that’s the dark crazy case many protesters have been making: politicians, while they may disagree on some social issues, largely agree on the fundamental structural policies that privilege the most powerful Americans; in turn, those powerful Americans support the existing political class. This doesn’t seem so crazy to me, and while 99% of Americans may not agree verbatim with OWS, it is telling that in the last two major protest movements we’ve seen, we’ve seen elements of that dichotomy attacked: with the Tea Party going after government power, and OWS going after the private interests that pour money into maintaining the political and economic status quo.

In my eyes, it isn’t too hard to imagine a world in which money and privilege begets more money and privilege, and that over time that process could accelerate. At the same time, I’m certainly sympathetic to Sanchez’s point that not everyone shares that view. The problem with a more rigorous, honest debate is that while there are plenty of people (Paul Krugman and Glenn Greenwald spring to mind) who espouse my point of view, there aren’t really any politicians who embody those ideas.  This is also my problem with W.W.’s piece. Here’s his view:

There is something profoundly satisfying about believing that one’s own team alone has seen through the fog of disinformation and propaganda to the real truth about the treacherous interests that stand between our condition and the reign of justice. And there is something terrifically exciting about the sense, often engendered by visible protest movements, that one’s own team is growing, that its narrative is catching on. Conversely, there is something profoundly dissatisfying, and a little bit demoralising, in acknowledging that most people will never accept many of ones’ most ardently-held convictions, and that, therefore, none of us will ever get to live in a society that closely matches, or even roughly approximates, our beloved ideals. But it’s true all the same. And it’s true all the same that our actual democracy, for all its problems, does about as well as democracy can be realistically expected to do, given the size and diversity of this country. Frankly, we’re pretty lucky our democracy works as well as it does. There’s a great deal we can do to make it a little better, but there’s very little we can do to make it a lot better, because we’ll almost never agree enough about the really big stuff.

Banding together with a bunch of like-minded citizens to make a big noise is a great way to get noticed, to rally similarly-outraged others to a cause, and to shift the terms of the public debate. OWS has done all that. Now they’ve got to get some sympathetic folks elected to public office, because that’s how this democracy thing works, when it does. Anyway, if our democracy really is irredeemably broken, the polls would seem to suggest that further camping is unlikely to turns things around. (Emphasis added)

While this may not be utopian, it does represent a certain idealized strain that often gets vocalized about our political process that drives me nuts. The idea that our democracy works pretty well and that now protesters should set about governing is, I think, a fantasy in much the same way that a conspiracy of the 1% is a fantasy, or a pernicious media bias is a fantasy–small truths mixed with large doses of delusion.

First off, calling our state a “democracy”, while accurate, isn’t especially precise. There are all sorts of ways you can build a democracy, and our breed of republican government is dissimilar from a lot of other “democracies”. We rely heavily on first past the post voting, and our political system heavily privileges our two main parties. We share that reliance with the UK and a lot of other UK colonies. Continental Europe largely does things differently, with an emphasis on proportional representation. Proportional representation awards seats in the legislature based upon the percentage of the vote a party obtains; for instance, if the Green party won 8% of the votes here in the states, they would receive 8% of the seats in Congress. That’s it, on a simple level.

I don’t want to romanticize proportional representation, and in light of ongoing events it deserves noting that Europeans are no strangers to government inefficiency. But our particular breed of “democracy” essentially assures that either a Republican or Democrat will be elected to any given national office. Since Democrats, on the left, and Republicans, on the right, both know that they face no real threat of being outflanked from either the left, or right, respectively, from another party, they largely concentrate on moving centrist voters. Because of that, voters who feel strongly about either the left, or the right, are largely reduced to a simple choice: vote for a Democrat or Republican who is more moderate than you’d like, or don’t vote. This is to say nothing of voters who’s political beliefs are not easily captured on a left-right spectrum.

So when W.W. writes about OWS that “Now they’ve got to get some sympathetic folks elected to public office, because that’s how this democracy thing works” I’d like to reply, well, that’s not really how it goes in this country. OWS represents, in my mind, a populist push against both government and corporate overreach fundamentally antithetical to either of the major parties, Democrats included. In Europe they’d doubtless have their own political party; here, that’s not possible. If the OWS protesters are right, and they not only have to fight fundamental systemic limitations on “extreme” viewpoints but also an entrenched elite with an interest in preserving the status quo? It becomes a lot harder to imagine OWS congressional candidates. Now, the cleverer among you might retort that that’s actually exactly what the Tea Party succeeded in doing last election cycle. And that’s true.

However, there are some substantive differences between the Tea Party and OWS that I think are highly relevant. I’m only going to list them briefly, here, because this post is already overly long, but I’ll elaborate in the future. The first is that the Tea Party platform is an extension of the basic Republican platform, whereas the OWS demands (inchoate as they may be) appear to be a pretty radical departure from the traditional Democrat platform. The second is that the Tea Party was incredibly well funded, and quickly adopted (co opted?) by the Republican Party elite. People have been trying a similar thing with OWS, but because of point (1) it has proven resistant to that. The third point is that, yes, OWS is less focused and more scattered than the Tea Party. I’ll try and expand on all of this in a future post.

For now, let me just conclude by way of summation. People criticize OWS for a “utopian” or unrealistic view of the world. Well, I counter that the romanticized centrist portrait of a high functioning American polity that succeeds by virtue of vigorous public debate and compromise between our politicians is equally romanticized. The world according to The West Wing is appealing, but it’s not going to happen. Additionally, cries for OWS to turn its attention to governing are misguided not just because of its incompatibility with the major party platforms, or the moneyed and powerful interests that control a corrupt system, but also because of the very structure of our democracy itself. The moment OWS decides that its done camping and wants to govern, it’s going to stop being relevant.