Democracy and the rhetoric of protests: A response to Will Wilkinson and Julian Sanchez
Manichean rhetoric is employed, nuance is jettisoned, and catchy sloganeering reigns supreme.
To believers in the primacy of intellectual honesty, the cacophony of protest can be disconcerting, the participants obstreperous. Will Wilkinson and Julian Sanchez certainly seem to think so. In recent posts, the two libertarians urge occupiers to stop occupying and start engaging with the political system.
Sanchez had the opening salvo:
“A small group of people self-selected for their commitment to some set of shared goals and values may be able to pick a set of slogans to chant in unison, or resolve their limited disagreements by consensus process. But real democracy in a pluralist society involves deep and often ineradicable disagreement—and not just on the optimal uses of public parks and other commons. It’s true, of course, that concentrated and wealthy interests routinely capture the apparatus of government, and use it to serve ends inimical to the general good. But a frame that sets up an opposition between “the 99%” and “the 1%” —or, if you prefer, between “Washington/media elites” and “Real America”—suggests a vain hope that profound political differences are, at least in some spheres, an illusion manufactured by some small minority.”
Wilkinson, similarly rankled by protesters’ antipathy toward pluralism, also decried their ideological presumptuousness: Why can’t the protesters accept that a huge chunk of “the 99%” doesn’t agree with them without questioning the naysayers’ lucidity? (It’s a funny gripe for a guy whose brand of liberal-libertarian fusionism has been implicitly based on the idea that liberals just need to adopt libertarian policies to achieve their desired ends.) At bottom, Wilkinson and Sanchez have two principal beefs with the occupiers: their rhetorical reductionism and puerile conception of democracy.
The two correctly characterize the 99-1 dichotomy as simplistic. But Wilkinson and Sanchez are missing the point of a catchy slogan—or any protest chant, for that matter: They’re succinct, and thus, require some explication if one is seeking nuance. (The “1” arrayed against the “99” simply means that the wealthy and powerful have a criminally large influence in our political economy, and they use that influence to perpetuate an unjust system). Parliamentary bargaining and cerebral discussions have their place—indeed, I wouldn’t blog at the League if I thought otherwise. But agitation outside the ballot box or the walls of Congress is a necessary antecedent to social change. As Howard Zinn felicitously phrased it, it’s “that healthy commotion that has always attended the growth of justice.” That might upset Wilkinson, Sanchez, and other populist critics, but dispassionate policy papers don’t catalyze social change. Visceral exhortations must supplement cerebral appeals.
On the question of expunging pluralism from the American polity, Wilkinson is right: Too often people blame ideological differences on obfuscation or ignorance. But the pluralistic give-and-take that Sanchez and Wilkinson invoke is, at present, illusory. Even Sanchez acknowledges “that concentrated and wealthy interests routinely capture the apparatus of government, and use it to serve ends inimical to the general good.” The 1 percent isn’t monolithic, nor is it a moustache-twirling, scheming phalanx of elites arrayed against a homogeneous 99 percent. The truth is less conspiratorial, less coordinated, and comparably banal. But pernicious it remains. In addition, there’s a good case to be made that institutional factors impede the passage of more egalitarian policies.
Look, I share the two libertarians’ (abstract) devotion to pluralism. But what about the pluralism of democratic expression?
When Sanchez writes things like, “To imagine protest not as prologue to politics, but as a substitute for it, suggests a denial of the reality of pluralism, and an unwillingness to find out what democracy actually looks like [italics mine],” he’s offering up an overly constricted vision of democracy. Wilkinson is also a defeatist. To him, our debauched democracy “does about as well as democracy can be realistically be expected to do, given the size and diversity of this country.” (I suspect Wilkinson’s cynicism about our process’s prospects is also tied to his affinity for public choice theory.)
To democratic minimalists like Sanchez and Wilkinson, democracy is electoral politics. Citizen participation means voting, if one is so inclined. Enhancing citizen power is gratuitous. But this is exactly the kind of narrow, elite-enhancing conception of democracy that the Occupy movement so clearly eschews. What many occupiers do seek is a more vibrant democracy in which corrupt influences don’t dictate policy and average citizens can meaningfully influence the forces and decisions that shape their lives.
This desire for democratization is comparable to the radical agrarian movement of the late 1800s, as Lawrence Goodwyn describes in his masterful work Democratic Promise: “To the extent that the reformers were able to develop new modes of political expression, they were engaging in an attempt at cultural redefinition of what constituted genuine democracy. The extent to which they succeeded in enlarging prevailing frames of reference measured the meaning of Populism.” The Occupy movement is similarly concerned with reshaping popular conceptions of democracy and citizen participation.
That includes some good old rabble-rousing. Zinn again:
“Democracy is not just a counting up of votes; it is a counting up of actions. Without those on the bottom acting out their desires for justice, as the government acts out its needs, and those with power and privilege act out theirs, the scales of democracy will be off. That is why civil disobedience is not just to be tolerated; if we are to have a truly democratic society, it is a necessity. By its nature, it reflects the intensity of feeling about important issues, as well as the extent of feeling. This fills a vital need in a political system accustomed to counting heads, but needing also to measure passions.”
After facilitating at a general assembly several weeks back, one of my best friends received a message from a participant thanking him for the empowering experience. Even in the “world’s greatest democracy,” she had never felt as engaged in the democratic process. At a recent Occupy DSM statement of principles working group meeting, one member said he never dreamed of trying to solve the world’s problems. He said it partly in jest, but these anecdotes get to the heart of what I think the Occupy movement is all about: augmenting agency and correcting deep societal power imbalances.
In the face of this reality, the most democratic, discourse-shifting left-wing protest movement in years is now being implored to funnel all its aspirations into a moribund, perverted political process.
Uh, I think we’ll pass.