Over a month after a motley crew of demonstrators set up camp in downtown Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, the question of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest movement’s “demands” persists. What do the Occupiers want? What should they want? What good is a protest if it does not demand explicit redress?
Within the movement itself, the lack of demands is a point of pride. The General Assembly of the New York City occupation has explicitly denied the Demands Working Group’s claim to speak on behalf of the movement. While the Demands Working Group has struggled to delineate a list of specific policy demands, the broader movement has firmly resisted this effort. “We are our demands. This #ows movement is about empowering communities to form their own general assemblies, to fight back against the tyranny of the 1%. Our collective struggles cannot be co-opted,” proclaims the Occupy Wall Street homepage in a statement disavowing the Demands Working Group.[i] As one New York occupier explains, “The notion of demands connotes disempowerment, or hostage-taking. That’s not what we’re about. We’re about empowerment. The government shouldn’t need us to make ‘demands,’ because it should be of us.”[ii]
Washington policymakers accustomed to receiving an “ask” from an interest group (or a wealthy donor) have been flummoxed by the movement’s refusal to fit into the traditional way of doing business. Media outlets accustomed to covering the micro-contests that make up much of the day-to-day business of policymaking in Washington have struggled with Occupy Wall Street as well. Yet, Occupy Wall Street’s lack of explicit demands is smart movement politics for the time being, advantageous for the movement itself and for savvy politicians alike. For a month-old movement with solid popular support, OWS’s demand-free stance makes good sense.
The movement’s absence of specific demands is advantageous to the movement itself. Occupy Wall Street’s meta-demand that government policies serve “the 99 percent” has protected the movement from becoming tangled in the weeds of legislative requests, a strategic move that has allowed the protests to gain energy and popular support. Enumerating specific demands only to have them left unmet would leave the movement looking weak, and vulnerable to losing the energy it has generated around its motivating message of economic and political fairness. It remains to be seen whether, eventually, Occupy Wall Street will channel its raw power and broadly-resonant message in order to achieve specific policy objectives. For now, however, the broad-message movement has dragged issues of economic justice to the forefront in a way that decades of academic study of rising economic inequality and the occasional policymaker’s focus on distributional issues have not been able to accomplish.
Other commentators have noted the above point, i.e. Occupy Wall Street movement’s absence of specific policy demands is smart movement politics. Less noticed has been that the same point holds for the progressive “establishment.” Occupy Wall Street movement’s lack of demands is actually a boon to Democratic policymakers and their allies in Washington, for several key reasons.
First, the absence of specific demands gives policymakers and their allies the ability to craft their responses in free-form, rather than having to give specific thumbs-up/thumbs-down responses to a laundry list of policy choices. Policymakers have the opportunity to channel the frustration and anger streaming from the Occupy protesters into specific policies of their choosing, rather than having to shoehorn Occupiers’ “demands” into the policy process. The loose-to-non-existing relationship between the movement and political leadership gives politicians an opportunity to do what they’ve been elected to do—to channel the inchoate will of the people into specific policies. Occupy Wall Street has given the establishment an opportunity to show leadership and political skill. President Obama has, to a certain extent, already done this—his executive actions revamping the student loan debt repayment program, for example, speak directly to the concerns of many of the debt-laden college graduates at the helm of the Occupy encampments across the country.
The absence of specific demands also protects the political establishment, and, in particular, the Democratic political establishment, from failure. Interviews with participants in Zuccotti Park as well as a close reading of the lengthy online conversations regarding demands suggest that most individuals allied with the Occupy Wall Street movement prioritize political reforms aimed at eliminating undue corporate influence in politics (e.g. overturn the Citizens United ruling; provide public financing for federal elections) and stricter regulation of the financial industry (e.g. reinstate Glass-Steagall).[iii] Gridlock in Washington means that Democrats are unlikely to succeed in actually enacting specific policies, including the handful of policy positions that appear most popular amongst Occupiers and their allies. While the president enjoys a limited amount of freedom to act independently of Congress, most major policy actions require congressional action.
In other words, if Occupy Wall Street was demanding specific policies, the Democrats would almost certainly fail to deliver them. Even if Democrats themselves were unified in support of such policies—which they almost certainly wouldn’t be—the conservative Republican majority in the House and the dysfunctional institutional politics of the Senate mean that passage of progressive policies are a near-impossibility. Specific demands amount to a set-up for failure for policymakers, not to mention a potentially damaging exposure of the factions within the Democratic Party—the movement’s best bet for an eventual political ally. In contrast, the absence of such demands allows policymakers space—and time—to maneuver.
Of course, it is not entirely accurate to say that the Occupy Wall Street movement has not articulated clear demands. The “We are the 99 Percent” slogan sends a lucid meta-message—and an implicit demand. While one percent of Americans have enjoyed rising wealth and privilege over the last several decades, the remaining 99 percent have been left behind. The Occupy Wall Street movement represents a demand to an end of an era where the economy, with the aid of a permissive government and a broken democracy, worked fabulously well for only a very privileged few. The movement’s calls for economic justice represent a public expression of anxiety and anger at the economic consequences of political dysfunction. More than that, Occupy Wall Street represents a public outcry over the voicelessness and disempowerment of the 99 percent. Implicit in these complaints is a simple demand: the status-quo is simply unacceptable.
In essence, Occupy Wall Street’s proto-demand represents a quintessential “We the People” moment. Democracy requires that its representatives act on behalf of “the people,” but the definition of precisely whom those “people” are remains a fluid concept. Occupy Wall Street demands a broader definition of the concept of “We the People” than that of the status quo, and in doing so reminds us that the American “people” are not an empirical certainty but rather a politically-created concept. Political theorists have a name for this kind of movement demand—a “constituent moment,” defined as a historical moment when “underauthorized” individuals seize the mantle of authority, and, by doing so, change the inherited rules of authorization and produce new conditions for political representation.[iv]
This “We the People” demand has resonated with a frustrated American public. 81 percent of Americans feel that the country is seriously off on the wrong track.[v] Fully 95 percent are some combination of angry, upset, and/or concerned with the state of the country today.[vi] 85 percent agree that Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence in Washington, and 79 percent agree that the gap between rich and poor in this country has grown too large.[vii] By a large margin (71 percent), Americans believe that our nation’s position in the world is in decline.[viii] The Occupy Wall Street message has generated substantial public support for the movement, with 54 percent of Americans holding a favorable opinion of the protests, and over a third expressing “support.”[ix] As Brookings’ Isabel Sawhill and others point out, the economic facts are behind the protest movement’s message, too. Income inequality has been increasing since the 1970s, middle-class incomes have stagnated, and intergenerational social mobility is declining.[x]
The basic economic trends have been in place for decades, but the newfound public outcry over the inequities may very well be an indirect consequence of President Obama’s electoral victory three years ago. The current economic picture remains grim, throwing longer-term trends of stagnant incomes and rising economic inequality into sharp relief for many who may have previously believed that economic inequality, and diminished social mobility were someone else’s problem. Obama’s election offered a moment of possibility, “hope” for “change” in the near future. Nearly three years into his presidency, Obama remains thwarted by an intransigent Republican House, a sharply divided Senate beholden to rules that empower the minority at the expense of the majority, and a continued outsized corporate power in the workings of government. All of this comes together to help explain why, after decades of economic inequity, a mass movement claiming a voice for “the 99 percent” has gained traction this fall.
Washington’s gridlock may too help explain the birth of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Sociology’s “political processes” approach to understanding social movements sees changes in the state as paramount to opening up the space for social movements to arise, e.g. economic and political shifts occur, which open up space for a movement.[xi] Possible shifts include divided political elites, or a general crisis in government that has distracted elites’ attention. Both open up space for new movement voices. Both explanations may hold today. Democrats and Republicans remain sharply divided over the “correct” policy prescriptions for the country’s economy, and, perhaps even more importantly, sharply divided in their visions for the role of government in American society. Gridlock in Washington reached crisis levels this past summer, when Republican brinksmanship nearly forced the United States into default on its international debt, and Standard & Poor’s downgraded the nation’s debt due to the political dysfunction in Washington. The particularities of the moment provided an opportunity for the rise of a social movement protesting long-standing socio-political inequities.[xii]
Historically, the most successful social movements have slowly been incorporated into “establishment” politics as their broad justice-based claims were honed into specific policies. The uprisings during the Great Depression, the civil rights movement, the students’ movement, the women’s rights movement, and the Tea Party all provide examples of the varying paths protest movements can take as their broad demands are subsumed (or not) by the political establishment. It remains to be seen whether the Occupy Wall Street protests will result in meaningful political change or whether they will be a curious historical blip. But to demand demands from the Occupiers today is a misguided effort, particularly for those who see some merit in their broader message.