October 3, 2011 | By Eric Sorensen | 1 Comment »
Categories: Communications, Politics, Sociology
Tags: American Studies, Eric Sorensen, faculty, protests, The Art of Protest Occupy Wall Street, TV Reed, Washington State University, WSU
The anti-Wall Street protests spreading around the country have caught the eye of T.V. Reed, a professor of American Studies at Washington State University and author of The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism From the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle. At the request of the WSU Discovery blog editor, he has filed this post:
The Occupy Wall Street movement is growing very rapidly. It is now in more than 70 cities across the US. Whether it will continue to grow depends, I think, on three things.
First is whether the mainstream media will grow tired of the protests, as they tend to do over time. The parallel right-wing movement of the so-called Tea Party was helped immensely by advocacy coverage from Fox News.
A second issue is whether the movement can spread to unions. Conservative media have claimed that labor unions are behind the protests. That is not true. But it could become true given that unions have been so much under attack in the past few months by Republican politicians. Unions are one of the few significant forces that have organizing networks and a liberal-progressive constituency. The Occupy Wall Street movement at present is dominated by students and other youth. Historically, the combination of students and union members has led to very powerful movements. That combination nearly brought down the government of France in 1968, and it was at the heart of the success of the 1999 Battle of Seattle protests for greater justice in globalization processes.
A third factor is whether the movement can hone its message. Movements typically begin with very broad, amorphous agendas. But they grow when they can focus on certain clear objectives. In this case, I think the overall objective is to counter the rightward drift of US politics in general and President Obama in particular over the last couple of years. The current message—that the government is only working for the wealthiest 1 percent of the population, and what about the rest of us, the 99 percent?—will need to be translated into more specific demands.
In the end, the movement could affect tax policies and the upcoming presidential campaign while acting as a check on the Tea Party.
The Tea Party was started by right-wing politicians like Dick Armey, but with help from Fox News grew into a real movement that has emboldened Republicans to move further to the right in policy. The Occupy Wall Street movement has the potential to reverse this movement, pushing the president and Democratic politicians back toward their liberal-progressive base. The policies most immediately impacted will probably be efforts to return tax levels for the wealthiest Americans to the pre-Bush era level and to support the President’s new jobs bill. But the wider impact is likely to be on the presidential campaign.
President Obama is by nature a centrist who leans to the left. But he has governed lately as a centrist who leans to the right. As he enters campaign mode, he has already shown signs of moving back toward the center-left, and this movement is likely to further his move in that direction.
But social movements historically go beyond mere legislative change. They empower ordinary citizens to take on the bigger picture. And in this case the bigger picture has been the steadily widening income gap in the US in which a few continue to become fabulously wealthy while the rest have stagnated or lost ground. As Warren Buffett, the billionaire and advocate of taxing the rich, recently pointed out in response to conservative claims that Democrats want “class warfare”: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
He meant this latter point figuratively, but in fact people are dying in the US due to things like inadequate medical care and nutrition, and millions of ordinary Americans understand this. How many are ready to join this particular protest of these conditions remains to be seen.