by Bill Longbrake
Center for Financial Policy
This is an excerpt of the October 2011 edition of the Longbrake Letter. To read more, click here.
The answer to this question is not yet clear. But, in a very short time two things have happened. First, the protests so far have had durability and have spread to many other geographical locales from the initial venue of Zuccotti Park in New York City near Wall Street. Second, media coverage has mushroomed and is at about the same level of intensity that prevailed during the early stages of the Tea Party movement.
Polling done in the first week of October by the Pew Charitable Trusts Project for Excellence in Journalism found that the protests accounted for 7% of the collective news media coverage. Increased news media coverage is important in sustaining protests and in helping to create the potential to transform those protests into a movement. In another Pew poll, 42% said they were either following the news coverage “very closely” or “fairly closely”. A poll conducted by Rasmussen indicated that 33% had a favorable opinion of the protests; 27% had an unfavorable reaction; and 40% had no knowledge about “Occupy Wall Street”.
Drivers of “Occupy Wall Street” Protests. Anne-Marie Slaughter recently wrote in the New York Times that “… the twin drivers of America’s nascent protest movement against the financial sector are injustice and invisibility, the very grievances that drove the Arab Spring.”
Injustice is about economic inequality and the capture of the political and economic systems in America by the financial elite to serve their interests to the detriment of the other 99%. The core grievance is that the economic hardships millions of Americans are enduring have been caused by the practices of big financial institutions and the enormous political power Wall Street wields over the U.S. government.
Invisibility is about a dysfunctional political system dominated by narrowly-based partisan political agendas which are unresponsive to the grievances of millions of Americans. Simply put, millions of Americans are hurting because America’s economic system is not working for them and they don’t feel the government is listening to them or responding to their grievances. As Ms. Slaughter wrote, “In the words of one protester interviewed in San Francisco, “We don’t have a government for ‘we the people’ anymore.”
Thus, the drivers of “Occupy Wall Street” are broken economic and political systems.
Movement Criteria. Many have been quick to point out that a few protests and some news media coverage do not guarantee that significant change will follow. For that to happen, the protests need to evolve into a movement. Movements generally develop from a crisply defined grievance and explicitly stated solutions. This was the case for the civil rights movement and the Viet Nam War protests.
Economic injustice and governmental dysfunction are much more broadly-based grievances and lack the kind of focus that spawn and propel movements. Also, there is not yet a well-defined list of solutions. However, perhaps that is the relevancy of the Arab Spring for “Occupy Wall Street”. The Arab Spring was about challenging governments which catered to narrow elites and which had become unresponsive to the people. Perhaps that grievance is also deep-seated in America and that will be sufficient to perpetuate and expand the protests to the point where they transform into a movement which then might have the potential to force fundamental political and economic change.
Movements which have impact typically have the following attributes:
· Single identifiable or charismatic leader. “Occupy Wall Street” has no identifiable leader, although that was also the case for the Tea Party movement in the early days.
· Creation of an institution which can influence and martial public opinion. “Occupy Wall Street” has yet to evolve into an institutional framework.
· Define an action agenda; develop a program. There are many grievances but no action agenda or program yet exists.
· Engage in the political process. This poses a challenge because many “Occupy Wall Street” protesters believe that both political parties have been captured by Wall Street. But, politicians aren’t likely to respond unless they believe that the movement has become powerful enough to change election outcomes.
In the words of Stephen Zunes, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, “Successful movements focus on developing a well-thought-out strategy, clearly articulated political demands, a logical sequencing of tactics, well-trained and disciplined activists, and a recognition that colorful protests are no substitute for door-to-door organizing among real people.”
We will know in time whether “Occupy Wall Street” becomes the catalytic agent that spurs political change and economic revival. One can hope that it does have impact because the course we have been on appears to be one that is contributing to America’s slow decline as a global power.
 Anne-Marie Slaughter. “Occupied Wall Street, Seen From Abroad.” The New York Times. October 6, 2011.
 Stephen Zunes. “Protests Are Not a Movement.” The New York Times. October 7, 2011.