Heather Gautney asks: Is this what democracy looks like? That’s perhaps the first question prompted by the swirl of tents, signs, news choppers and police motorcycles that have colored the Occupy Wall Street protests. But there are two other questions we should be asking as well. Is democracy even possible in a context of extreme instability and social inequality, in which 1 percent of the population owns and polices the other 99 percent? And who, among our distinguished set of 2012 candidates, really wants to narrow this gap?
Thus far, the Occupy movement is checking “None of the Above” on the ballot box. Since mid-September, it has instead decided to represent itself in the streets. And if you think there aren’t concrete, policy-related demands being made there, have another look: Everything from education to housing, health care, environment, energy and security are up for grabs. All of these institutions are in need of fixing, and all of them are making the list.
These acts of self-representation—or direct democracy—do not compute among mainstream politicians and their pundits. Occupy does not speak the language of party or ideology, and this has not boded well for a system that relies on polls, predictability and reductive thought. Social movements are, by their very nature, complex, organic and indeterminate. They operate at the deepest levels of how we view each other and the world we live in.
This movement is no exception. You can’t reduce this kind of public outcry to dichotomies like liberal and conservative, or Blue and Red. And you certainly can’t dismiss it as fringe and un-American. Occupy is a popular movement, not a Tea Party, and the act of sticking up for yourself is as American as apple pie.
Despite this apparent disconnect, the Occupy movement has received honorable mention at the highest levels of government, though I suspect this has more to do with polls and constituencies than with genuine understanding. After a Time Magazine survey revealed that 54 percent of Americans actually support these rabble-rousers, our politicians started to take notice. Occupy is actually more popular among the American people than the U.S. Congress—and that must really hurt.
That 54-percent figure was likely behind flip-flopper Mitt Romney’s overnight change of heart. Just days into October, Romney called the protesters “dangerous” instigators of “class warfare.” A week later, he switched gears and expressed “worry” for the 99 percenters. All the sudden this multi-millionaire, private-sector guru has become a man of the people. Who knew?
Then there’s Barack Obama. The guy we all wanted to love. With his usual charm, he empathized with the Occupy-ers, said not everyone in Corporate America was playing by the rules and, once again, took us on a stroll down Main Street. But in the tug of war between Main Street and Wall Street, Obama has made his loyalties clear. Just take a look at the long list of Wall Street contributors to his campaign. Unfortunately, Mr. President, you are the company you keep.