Sympathetic OWS Demonstration in Portland, OR
(Image by By Another Believer (Own work)) Permission Details DMCA
I had the pleasure of getting a reply from Paul Pierson about his
thoughts on OWS (Occupy Wall Street). He is the co-author of
Winner-Take-All Politics with Jacob S. Hacker, and is a professor of
political science at UC Berkeley. I extend my deepest condolences to
his team in their recent defeat against Oregon. I also received a
well-thought out answer to the question that has been plaguing this
movement, does it have the organization to create real political change.
Walter Lippmann wrote, "[democracies] have in literal truth to lift
themselves by their own bootstraps." The American democracy is a system
built to allow people to access its potential at multiple points; a
heavily redundant and overlapping structure to allow interests and
citizens to be heard in many places. It is also a very slow system;
resistant to change. It is a "maddening" system whereby the power of
the few to block a majority is relatively easy; filibusters are probably
the most prominent example.
Change comes slowly in America, and the key to making that change happen
is good organization. Professor Paul Pierson said "the "1%" is
organized, and in it for the long haul. It takes durable organization to
effectively counter that, and this will be a huge challenge for
citizens who, of course, face the strains of daily life, have many
pressing demands on their time, and may lose faith in the absence of
quick and obvious triumphs." The 1% has the upper hand by far right
now. They have organized lobbies that have successfully defeated even
the most modest bills since the 1970s. "Unions were on the front lines
of every major economic battle of the mid-century." Unions were so
powerful that distinguished voices like Derek Bok and John Dunlop were
predicting a distinct shift toward the left.
But because of a well organized coalition of businesses (many of them
initially small businesses) Unions suffered staggering defeats. Taking
their new-found political might out for a drive, business started
reframing the debate. In 1978 business successfully lobbied to
lower the capital gains tax. For the next 20 years unions declined in
membership and funding, the capital gains tax nearly disappeared, and
voter turnout steadily decreased. It left a power vacuum of dedicated
lobbyists that found a sympathetic ear in politicians willing to believe
in trickle-down policy and the necessity of business.
Unions came to represent something bad for America; just "another
special interest group" that didn't have the majority in mind. The
political result was that the government loosened its hold on businesses
to the point that the minimum wage for work was never tied to
inflation, the top 1% pulled way ahead of America in every way, and the
American people were forced to bail out big banks to keep our economic
system from collapsing. CEOs in the banking industry walked away with
millions; trading volumes of bad assets on a nation crippling scale.
So that leaves us at OWS, "As unions have declined, there has been a
huge void in organized political life where the economic concerns of
ordinary Americans used to get expressed. The consequences of that void
have been devastating for tens of millions. Washington not only looks
the other way, but way too often those with political power seem
hellbent on making things worse."
But hidden in this bleak picture is the light at the end of the tunnel,
democracy's strength is its ability to change--even if reluctantly and in
fits and starts. Pierson explains, "I'm excited to see so many people now
finding their voice, and a collective mechanism, for pushing back
against these depressing trends."
I have earlier drawn parallels of OWS with the Tea
Party. At the core of the two movements is a message free of politics,
"let me in. Let me have a say in where this nation goes." Regardless
of stance on political issues, people are tired of politics.
So OWS doesn't have a clear message. And there is no organization. The
media has failed to give it enough lip service. So what? As Pierson put it
"Jacob and I (not very originally) suggested, the new social media
provide the best opportunity for mobilizing new forms of organization to
turn things around." It doesn't require the same input as anything
else. Social media is integral to a "durable movement" and is the new
grassroots. So does the message, "we are the 1%" have enough resonance
to sustain a movement? Will OWS make it through the harsh Northeastern
I think so, and I think that a little luck and perseverance will get OWS through its Valley Forge.