It is easy to disagree with and dismiss sentiments like “Hungry? Eat the Bankers,” “Your tie looks like a noose,” “S*** is F***ed Up and BullS***,” or any of the thousands of other intermittently ignorant, clever, insightful, or simply nonsensical slogans carried on signs by Occupy Wall Street protesters. But Occupy Wall Street should not be judged on the strength of the ideas on its signs, the coherence of its ideology, or the practicality of its various policy prescriptions. Judging it so demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of political protest in American democracy. Protest serves not to create policy but, rather, to create the political space in which policy can be created.
The nature of our representative, republican democracy – as opposed to a direct democracy – is such that voters do not make policy. And while we might hope to hold citizens to a rigorous intellectual standard, we should not expect the average American – even the average politically engaged American – to have an entirely coherent ideology, clearly defined policy goals, and well-crafted means for carrying those goals out over time. Many of our smartest politicians and political theorists fall short by one or all three of those metrics. These are complicated times without easy answers.
What answers may eventually develop will only exist within the confines of larger political debates. America is (today) a center-right country, committed to a free market unencumbered by heavy regulation, a relatively weak set of social services and safety nets, and the embrace of individual freedoms.
The point of social protest is to shift the terms of the debate – gradually and invisibly at times, or, in rare instances, in sudden and jarring jolts. Shifting the terms of the debate opens up new territory for potential policy to exist. This is the role Occupy Wall Street is playing. It should be judged on how effectively it does so.
Without trailblazers to mark new trails, it’s impossible to settle new frontiers. Certainly, trailblazers may make mistakes along the way. And the entire trailblazing and settling project might end up being a mistake, either because the gains don’t outweigh the losses or because the methods are unjustifiable by any end. But so far, the protesters’ means are harmless. Until the gains and losses are tallied, it’s too early to pass judgment.
The recent turn within the OWS protests towards a focus on inequality suggests a sharpening of the rhetoric and, perhaps, a strengthening of the movement. Moreover, this focus seems to be increasing the movement’s effectiveness in creating space for policy. Last Sunday, Eric Cantor, the Republican House Majority Leader, said repeatedly that America suffers from excessive income inequality. When Cantor has taken up your talking points, you’re succeeding in shifting the terms of debate.
If Occupy Wall Street fails to produce the political space for new, thoughtful, progressive policy that works to address inequality, then it will have been a failure. But to expect the protesters themselves to be shouting from Zuccotti Park fully crafted policy prescriptions is unreasonable and reflects a misunderstanding of the role of protest.
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