Democracy and Occupy Wall Street


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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76 Responses

  1. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    Is it perhaps more about feeling as though we are correcting deep societal power imbalances than it is about actually correcting them?

    Well… uh… yeah.  You didn’t glom onto that in the beginning?  Maybe I’m just more cynical.Report

  2. Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

    Good one, EDK.  We either settle this at the ballot box or in the streets.  The latter option seldom turns out well.


    • Avatar James K says:

      Especially when it’s the right that has all the guns 😉Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      Agreed entirely.  The rhetoric that our democratic institutions are illegitimate — because they aren’t really democratic — only leads one way, a path the French first traveled in 1789.


    • Avatar Dr. Bat Guano says:

      Please Tom, not another French Revolution or Bolshevik uprising.  The masses are incapable of civilized behavior and another ism in the mix only means another tyranny.  Tyranny, by any other name, is always and always will be, tyranny.  Unlike Saddam Hussein, Hitler actually DID win the popular vote in 1933.  And he was rather popular and well-liked in this country, particularly with the Left who just loved this guy with this new brand new version of Socialism.  The bottom fell out when he double-crossed Uncle Joe (Stalin) and began Operation Barbarossa.  The Left could give a damn about millions tossed out of boxcars and starved to death.   Marxism/Bolshevism/Communism was going to work and succeed one way or another, dammit, and whether or not it cost a hundred million lives is irrelevant.  Just another decrepit Utopian fantasy tossed into the ash bin of history. Sigh….Report

      • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

        I realize you’re a crazy troll, but you are aware it was the _conservative_ party in Germany that supplied the votes to pass various enabling acts, right? And one of the few parties to stand up to Hitler was the Social Democrats?Report

        • Avatar Dr. Bat Guano says:

          This is just blind man’s bluff, Jesse. The Social Democrats you refer to were neither “Social” nor “Democrat” but like every other single political party in Germany after January 30, 1933, served as mere Nazi political pawns used for propaganda purposes. It’s just laughable that you think opposition democratic parties existed after Hitler had took over in 1933. Whatever remnants of “democracy” that existed were very soon obliterated and exterminated. You know, it would be nice if you and some of the other nattering nabobs of negativism around here who throw the word, “troll” around to characterize their dissenters, actually knew what the word means. Troll: One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument. I do not deliberately post comments or remarks for the sole purpose of causing disruption and argument. That some of my comments cause any disruption or argument is incidental and not AT ALL deliberate. That is a huge difference. That you think no sane person could possibly have such unusual ideas and feelings is wrong and also your problem not mine. And to use the words of my favorite commenter, Mr. Thomas van Dyke, Good day, sir!Report

          • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

            Dr. Guano, Jesse is correct here.  Just saw it on History Channel last night, by coinkydink.  After Hitler won the election, he actually had many of the Social Democrat legislators carted off to camps.

            However, we might also note that in 1933, the Nazis were explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-free market.  [And there was that little streak of anti-Semitism, Jewish bankers and stuff.]

            On the whole, there is little to be gained by climbing Godwin’s Ladder here.Report

        • Not a troll, but factually correct. However, democratically-elected Hitler still doesn’t discredit leftism any more than democratically-elected Hitler discredits democracy any more than Stalinist Soviet Union discredits Communism..Report

          • Dammit, cascading comments. See TVDs notes above.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            Hitler wasn’t elected, he was given the position of Chancellor after losing an election.

            The Stalinist Soviet Union is much more troublesome if only because of the many decades that people were explaining that, no, this *IS* Communism and it *IS* working.

            Today? We’ve reached the point where people can now complain about people complaining about Stalin.

            For a good long while, however, Stalin was seen as an exemplar. Within living memory. Stalinism was argued to be Communism. Within living memory. (Pete Seeger’s for example.)Report

  3. Avatar Liberty60 says:

    EDK touches on something I have pointed out to my group as well;

    Changing the national discourse and focsuing attention on things we want to talk about are only first steps; good first steps, but still.

    At some point we need to be able to engage with the process, even if the process is broken and corrupt.Report

  4. Avatar pete.mack says:


    historically, civil disobedience is effective when it remained outside of establishment norms. The two cases that come immediately to mind are India’s independence, and the US civil rights movement. Neither was associated with any established party.

    Popularity is not the point.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe says:

      But they *did* get involved with the political process. (or had their proxies get involved, or recruited allies within the process, however you want to put it).  But that’s not the same thing as partisan – indeed the Civil Rights acts required a necessary coalition of Democrats and Republicans across regional lines.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      The U.S. Civil Right movement was involved in politics in at least four ways.

      First, they were deeply involved in the courts, through a long and strategically organized set of cases attacking the separate but equal rule.

      Second, they worked hard against monstrous obstacles to get southern blacks registered to vote.

      Third, in their local protests they persistently tried to negotiate with local authorities; where they were able to successful do so is where they had their greatest successes; where they were unable to do so is where they suffered losses.

      Fourth, their allies in Congress consistently worked on passage of a civil rights act, but were stymied for years by the filibuster, until LBJ became president and told his fellow Southern Dems–who had been his power base when he was Senate majority leader–that they could vote against the bill, to keep their constituents happy, but if they filibustered he would expose their skeletons and destroy them politically.  And following the Civil Rights Act, MLK negotiated with and badgered LBJ until he agreed to follow up with the Voting Rights Act the following year.

      So to say the U.S. civil rights movement operated outside of the established institutions is to misunderstand it.  But the protests were crucial, as they gave strength to their efforts within the establishment, both by pressuring politicians and by bringing the issues to the attention of a mass public that had been largely unaware before hand (when a national audience saw children being attacked by police dogs and being sprayed with fire hoses, the reality of southern apartheid struck home in many a middle class white household north of the Mason-Dixon line).


      • Avatar Liberty60 says:

        Well said.

        Political movements often need to become an irritant to the system- deliberatly forcing a confrontation, as a way of dramatizing and awakening awareness.

        But they can’t just rely on that alone- in fact, no battle or struggle ever succeeds with only one single tool or tactic; protests, court battles, electoral battles, and so on all need to be used.Report

      • Thank you, James, for inserting sanity here. when a national audience saw children being attacked by police dogs and being sprayed with fire hoses, the reality of southern apartheid struck home in many a middle class white household north of the Mason-Dixon line.

        I might actually nominate this for the non-existent category of Best Comment Ever.Report

  5. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    The political process may be shit but it’s also where Scott Walker was able to disenfranchise Wisconsin public sector unions. It’s where the Democrats passed Obamacare, and where previous generations enacted things like Social Security.

    Do you mean the legislative process plus the electoral process?  Cuz yeah that’s where that stuff happened.  And that’s a part of the political process.  But so is demonstrating in the streets and effecting “conversations.”  Occupy Wall Street is acting within the political process.  And they haven’t – can you show where they have? – forsworn the goal of trying to effect outcomes in the electoral and legislative processes.  But thwacking those processes – the electoral and legislative ones – and trying to change the nature of the processes themselves before entering them to try to work within them to affect their outcomes is absolutely part of the political process.  It seems strange to me that you would admit that these processes may be shit, but still say that any given political movement must be judged only by their outcomes as determined by the “crunching numbers”, and say that if they don’t attend to these to your satisfaction on your timetable, then not only are they objectively rejecting them, but in fact they aren’t even operating within the “political process.”  Occupy Wall Street has never been doing anything other than operating within and acting upon the political process.  And other than among the anarchists in their ranks (whom we shouldn’t presume to tell to embrace existing institutions in the sort or long run, since that’s their whole point), I don’t see a case that Occupy has rejected the electoral and legislative processes as legitimate objects of their energies.  Rather, the message seems, clearly to me, to be that the outputs of those processes has been unacceptable, and that their diagnosis is that the process itself is the problem, not the substantive matter on which the process operates.   Marching or occupying to show inchoate dissatisfaction with these outputs, while identifying process as the diagnosis for the failure, as a challenge to the establishment to disprove this diagnosis by producing more acceptable outputs in short order or else (by the activists’ account) confirm (or fail to disconfirm) their diagnosis of process breakdown/inefficacy.

    This all seem to be clearly part of the political process to me.  I still don’t see how Sanchez’s, Wilkinson’s, or now Erik Kain’s response to all this amounts to something other than an admonition to accept existing institutions as the best ones they can hope to be able to deal with, and get busy operating within them, constraining their demands to their explicit or implicit limitations.  But that’s just not what they’re out there to do, and they’re not going to.  So I guess you’ll go your separate ways.  It’s unfortunate, in my eyes, that this is due to a misapprehension of pure rejectionism on their part by you, and a strange turn away from reasonable optimism (I’ve never seen you as romantic, but merely hopeful, and always realistically so, with a distinct twinge of apprehension) to a constrictive pessimism about our capacity for institutional reform.  “Our institutions my be shit, but I’m not much for this activism that actually reacts to that and demands structural reform as well as substantive change in output!  I’d rather people just focus on operating within the constraints of shit institutions”  If our institutions are shit, then how are they not simply right?  How is this a good position?  For myself, my objection comes because I actually don’ think our institutions are shit – rather their outputs have been unsatisfactory (but not even entirely so).  I just happen to agree with some of the changes in outcomes that they’re calling for.  But these people do think our institutions are shit, to some extent.  I respect that, so why would I tell them they should seek to operate within them and measure themselves by the outcomes they can wrench from shit institutions?  That’s just not an on-point.  If that were my response, then I would expect them to say “Well then, forget you” and go off and do their own thing, because that’s what I’d do if someone responded that way to my concerns.Report

    • Dude, this is totally well-put. That’s all I have to say, because I think you should write full posts about your more-substantial gripes.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        Thanks Chris. I’m a little apprehensive, because I am quite aware I’m coming off as a mouth-foaming #OWS spokesperson/mouthpiece here of late, and in fact i am, perhaps not the farthest thing from it, but definitely not that.

        I actually had a comment in a recent thread saying that I think the movement is poised to pretty much flame out here over the winter, due to its (legitimate) eviction from its various stomping grounds.  I kind of just don’t see what’s going to set it apart from just other groups of more or less articulate advocates in the media discourse  when it tries to restart itself in the new year.  I could be wrong, and if I am I might have more to say after assessing and concluding that.  For now though, I kind of feel like I’ve said my piece on Occupy Wall Street.  But if inspiration strikes again on it or another topic, I’ll try to let it flow and submit something.Report

  6. Avatar George T says:

    Part of their problem is they have too many idiotic spokesmen.  In a recent video from Occupy San Diego, some young leader gave a long talk about how Marxism is a perfect system, and the followers nodded in agreement like the plastic chihuahua on the dashboard.  Just about everyone over thirty would conclude that these protesters are nut, and if any revolutionary activity started would be happy to kill them to a man just to prevent the country from falling into living hell of communism.

    To actually change society, you have to have a plan that’s a bit more thought out and adult than demanding that the Tooth Fairy start giving out gold coins instead of silver dollars, and your demands shouldn’t boil down to college students wanting other people pay for their college, and then demanding an automatic high-paying job for graduating with a degree in puppetry (one of the protesters actually did this).

    If Martin Luther King had made calls for free beer the centerpiece of his protest, his struggle would’ve ended with less success and lasting consequence than Biuto’s war against Dean Wormer, no matter what the rest of his message was.


  7. Avatar James Vonder Haar says:

    Granted that engagement with legislative democracy is a necessity for some movements and some individuals, I’m not really grasping why OWS as a movement, or those individuals within OWS, must do so themselves.  One need not be involved in every part of the political process in order to respect electoral democracy.  Rachel Maddow is not a sham because she is not involved in legislative bargaining.  An ACLU attorney is not delegitimized because she does not run for office.


    Protest is one avenue of political engagement, not separate from the system but a natural part of it.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      Shorter me.Report

      • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

        James/Michael –

        As I mentioned to Steve down below I don’t disagree. But OWS is woefully lacking in any other political engagement beyond the tent cities and protests and at a certain point this is simply insufficient. Or did I miss something and did OWS manage to do something about economic inequality? Have they captured the national mood in some way akin to the Civil Rights movement? Have they produced leaders with similar qualities held by CR movement leaders?Report

  8. Avatar Steve the hyena says:

    If OWS needs to engage in the “enterprise of convincing your neighbors with sustained arguments (or being convinced yourself), electing candidates, and all the rest”, how is protest not a valid form of doing so? It seems odd to think of these processes cannot exist either in parallel or as feedback loop with protest driving discussion driving protest. What’s missing from Sanchez’s pluralism is the concept of plural methods. If we’re talking about a grand social calculation, it seems silly to expect that each operation in it should be a microcosm of it. One set of operations may be tied to protest and simply be how one segment of the body politic resolves the issue while erudite discussion and blog posts represents how another segment performs the same calculation.

    Ultimately, however, democracy only works if everyone is busying themselves with this process, setting up the entire society to lend legitimacy to shifts in policy implemented through respected formal mechanisms. To argue that one method is inherently superior to another requires us first to establish that is not merely more effective but that it will actually penetrate into every group with a significant stake in the outcome. It doesn’t seem like there is one method which does that. Rather, we need Sanchez to speak to one group, OWS to another, the rest of us to still more. Debate has to cover a multitude of people, priorities and cognitive styles. Cover different people at different times and in different local temperaments. For that we’d reasonably need different methods and that’s what society has been busy doing.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      Steve – I don’t actually think anyone is saying otherwise here. Obviously you can have at the same time people protesting and people working to get elected officials they like in office and others can write blog posts. The problem with OWS, as I see it, is that it has remained entirely wed to the tent city model and refuses to evolve beyond it. Add to this the fact that the demands are vague enough to become soil for any pet issue imaginable and you have a bit of an inertia problem – at least until the cops come in and start cracking skulls.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        They’ve been in business for three months, pursued a very well-defined tactical approach during that time, and have now entered an assessment and planning phase, while still remaining active in ways that are indeed different from what has gone before.  In three months.  And you feel justified not just in saying what they’ve “refused” to do, but in saying that they’ve refused to evolve?  They are currently in an evolutionary phase, rather evidently, and are doing things that are different from what they have done before.  Moreover, not doing something on your timetable does not constitute a refusal to do something.  After three months, the most you can say is that they have not done X on your timetable.Report

        • Avatar Steve the hyena says:

          I think this is the quickest critique of any assertion that X refuses to Y. I seriously doubt that a viable political movement could be organized out of a protest movement in 3 months. A year seems more likely, even with dedication, unless you’ve simply been co-opted by political elites.Report

        • Avatar George T says:

          Discussing the movement in the same breath as democracy maybe unwarranted. According to this article in today’s Boston Herald, things aren’t going well in the ranks.

          Dispirited Occupy member Stephen Campbell, 24, said when asked why he didn’t get arrested, he said he withdrew from the camp early today as the end was clearly in sight. “The Occupy Boston movement as a whole became fascist,” he said, adding he still believes in the Occupy idea but not the organization. “At a general assembly this week we spent four hours trying to evict people rather than focusing on our political causes.” He went on to say the general assembly betrayed the movement, so he left the Dewey Square encampment before he got arrested. He also told the Herald’s Dan O’Brien that Boston police were the smartest in the nation by coaxing occupiers out. “They got Occupy Boston to leave, themselves.”

          This is one of the hard core protesters who was camped out in Boston, and even he thinks the movement is fascist.  When a movement’s core, its foot soldiers who are willing to suffer in the face of the police, in the bitter cold, are abandoning it, describind it to the press as fascist, and praising the police, it’s over.


          • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

            Mob rule is democracy, no?

            BTW, ’twas ancient Athens that invented “ostracism,” a forced 10-yr exile per popular vote.  There was no trial, no defense, just a vote.

            A useful mechanism, and no surprise the #OWS democracy found cause to re-invent it.Report

      • Avatar Steve the hyena says:

        You must have strayed extremely far from your roots, then. Why is it necessary that Occupy Wall Street also be the political arm of we’re getting screwed over? I think you’re misinterpreting it; OWS is a protest group connected to a broader movement, it is not the movement itself. You could think of the as the protest wing of that movement. Just because something has a sort of institutional dynamic doesn’t mean that it needs to start conglomerating functions….Report

  9. Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

    I’m in general agreement with what you say here, but I wonder if your closing statement, that “democracy is about destroying our enemies through political force,” is too focused on other participants in the democracy.  Democracy makes use of political force, sure, and it involves participants antagonistic to one another, but shouldn’t democracy, at least as an ideal, be about moving society, however messily, closer towards (competing conceptions of) the common good?  Your description seems instead to reflect a culture war mindset about the democratic process.Report

  10. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    The complex nature of the topics they are addressing makes sloganeering/protesting all the more inadaquate as an end-game. 

    How fetishized the land alone became with the occupy movement demonsrated that dissonance between their stated objectives and what they seemed to spend most of their time doing.

    While is may well be wrong, the events of the last month read to me like a movement wanting to assert itself (hence making such an issue of getting kicked out and trying to return to their parks), rather than effect change with longer lasting consequences.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      … the movement is much broader than OWS, I think… OWS is a vanguard of a large scale movement, that says basically that government can provide solutions to problems that corporations are causing, and that it’s worthwhile to try and figure out what those solutions are.Report

  11. Avatar Jaybird says:

    But democracy is about destroying our enemies through political force. It’s not about feeling anything.

    Well, perhaps. I think that, for our system, that there are some very, very, very important things that are not up for debate. (In theory anyway… think about the stuff in the Constitution.)

    That’s the stuff that is so important that it cannot be changed except through some really big and problematic rigamarole. The stuff that isn’t covered is, presumably, less important. Democracy is about either winning or, if the other side wins, not particularly caring because the very, very, very important things haven’t changed.

    If we vote on what we want on our pizza, it’s not about destroying our enemies. We’re just trying to figure out what we want on our pizza.Report

  12. Avatar James Hanley says:

    I wonder if many of the OWS folks mistakenly think of democracy as representing a set of outcomes, rather than a set of processes?


    1. After the ’04 election I was asked by the local newspaper to be on a forum with some Dominican nuns (our town is their retirement center, and they have some sharp, well-educated folks who are a delight to talk to).  In the middle of the discussion, one of them said, “I don’t get how, if this is a democracy, Bush could get re-elected?”  My reply was that he did a better get out the vote job in Ohio than Kerry did.

    2. When I was at the U. of Oregon (Rose Bowl champs 2012!), some students staged an anti-Nike protest.  They camped out in tents on the lawn of the administration building for two or three weeks (the president, despite being a Republican and, as UO prez, someone who really wanted to keep Nike’s Phil Knight happy) let them do so.  Eventually they got a meeting with him to air their views.  In the end, he proceeded on a course of action they disliked.  A couple who were my students complained that “he didn’t even listen to us!”  I responded that he obviously had; they were just mistaking agreement for listening.

    Maybe the pro-OWS folks here will light me up on this, and if so that’s fair.  I’m not saying I’m sure about this.  But I’ve seen this kind of error before, of thinking democracy requires certain outcomes, rather than just entailing certain processes, so I suspect some of that error is inherent in many OWS folks’ thinking.

    But if you disagree, please tell me why.  I’m pondering, not pontificating (at least this one time).Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      “better job of getting out the vote”??? Is that what it’s called these days?Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:


        Yes, it’s factually true.  In ’04 I predicted a Kerry win–I got all states right except Ohio.  With the state having lost 100,000 jobs in the first Bush presidency I had disregarded the polling that showed Bush with a slight edge, predicting economic dissatisfaction would tip the scales away from him.  He won handily, and I was curious why, so I started looking into it.  While everyone was (predictably) screaming voter fraud (and while there’s never been solid evidence of it, ATM style voting machines without a paper trail are, I say, unacceptable), it turned out that Karl Rove had seen the same economic numbers and the same polling that I had, so he had organized one of the most efficient get-out-the-vote organizations ever.  They reached out to likely Republican voters, got them registered, and got them to the polls, even driving them there when they needed rides.  It was a masterful operation, and it tipped the balance in the crucial state.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      It’s possible to hear without understanding. Clinton was rather famous for giving people hearings… From a friend’s personal experience, Obama listens , even when he disagrees strongly.

      Listening does not imply approval or agreement, but it is a higher form of paying attention than merely giving you a place to vent.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        Yes, that’s all true, but you manage to obscure the point.  Just somebody seriously listens to you does not mean you have persuaded them.  Someone making a decision with which you disagree does not mean they did not listen seriously to you.

        It is the being heard that is democracy; not the outcome going your way.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

          Case in point: I listen to the libertarians on this blog really, really, hard.  I just don’t come to the same conclusions they do on some things.  Ditto the liberals and the conservatives.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley says:

            Maybe I’m not yelling loud enough… 😉Report

            • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

              To be fair to all three groups (when I’m talking to intelligent representatives anyway) they all have reasonably coherent frameworks for looking at things.

              The problem, of course, is that their reasonably coherent frameworks are divergent from each other, and all three of ’em are really bad at accounting for the fact that in practice, a large number of people reject their framework.

              I’m pretty sure that a reliably consistent liberal run or a reliably consistent conservative run would yield better results than what we currently have; where Tom sees merit in gridlock, I see the grid locking on all the things that are less important than the stuff upon which both sides can come to agreement.

              In this, I have strong appeal for the libertarian argument that we let monolithic government do too much; the partisan swings result in them doing expensive things very badly, and sticking to the rules when it comes to liberties hardly ever.Report

  13. Avatar Steve S. says:

    Oh, E.D.

    The OWS movement is is a protest movement.  That’s what it does, protest.  That’s what protest movements do.

    The purpose of protest movements is to disrupt the status quo and make the prevailing politics more responsive to the perceived injustice.  Individuals affiliated with the movement can do politics to whatever extent they desire, but that’s not what the movement itself is.

    If OWS keeps at it long enough and hard enough then the prevailing politics will move toward it even if only subtly.  In our nominal democracy that’s the best we can hope for.  It’s a long game.Report

  14. Avatar A. Weiser says:

    And it helps to have a legislative path tracking in Congress at the same time.Report