A month out I’m willing to declare, even discounting the mainstream media’s severe undercoverage, Occupy Wall Street’s May 1st general strike and rallies did not live up to expectations. The Occupy movement, while still actively organizing and taking action, has begun to fade into the background. I’ll grant you that the demotion is not entirely the movement’s fault. The corporate media elites are more than happy to let (or push) OWS slide into the background.
Having failed to reignite with the return of warmer springtime weather, perhaps Occupy has truly peaked. However, I wouldn’t advise the “1%” (I still reject that term as too broad) to celebrate victory yet. As Occupy “fades,” we should take some time to consider some lessons learned from the recent movements striking at unjustified concentrated power wielded to the detriment of average citizens.
Yes, Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party share a common undercurrent of populist discontent (including a lot of fear and/or anger). I would also include the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear as another expression of this populism. Friends on the left will express shock that I’m even entertaining the idea that there is anything to admire or learn from the Tea Party. Before you guys pass out, just think of the Tea Party as Darth Vader: Young Skywalker knew there was some good in him even though Vader was co-opted and used as a powerful tool of the Empire.
Occupy and the Tea Party’s common populist undercurrent is that some form of elite has usurped our political system (our American form of democracy) and it no longer responds to “We the People.” I like to think of the movements’ actions as modern populists “testing the fence,” like the raptors did in Jurassic Park. Occupy and the Tea Party’s experiences have uncovered strengths and weaknesses of the barriers and movements themselves. These lessons should be learned to craft the next populist movement.
We learned from the both that co-option is a danger, to be wary of divisive so-called opinion leaders trying to jump to the front of your parade (Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin). If an organization is giving you a bus they are going to want to steer it. Co-option by established “allies” undermines the perceived legitimacy of the movement; true grassroots can be smothered beneath a layer of cynically applied astroturf.
We learned from Occupy that masses without message doesn’t translate into success.
We learned from both that big crowds at rallies are still shiny objects that can get media attention. People in attendance are making a statement with their physical presence, voting with their bodies. The picture says, “Look at all of these people who came out to support this message (whatever it happens to be).”
Both evoked an activist awakening, getting new people and new generations to get up off their butts and show up at an event.
We learned from both about the limits of leaderlessness, that too much decentralization leads to abdication of control over the message to the movements’ more fringy participants. You can have quality, legitimate leadership without being co-opted; it requires finding new, unaffiliated leaders from within the movement.
Perhaps most importantly, the Tea Party showed how it is possible to take over an establishment party from the bottom up. Over-gerrymandered safe districts are actually fertile ground for populist candidate takeovers. We learned from the Tea Party that if you are going to run candidates in elections, you need to vet them better. The Tea Party sometimes had multiple favored candidates running against the establishment GOPer resulting in a split vote. How about trying some sort of pre-primary or Tea Party caucus/convention sending your best candidate to the GOP primary?
We learned from both that there needs to be some control over the image of the movement. If you don’t define your image, someone else will.
We learned from Occupy that choosing tactics that the general public find annoying can be counterproductive to growing the movement. One writer disagrees: “Occupy’s saving grace and only power is that it is not permitted, and it is not ‘legal’” This accomplished what exactly? I guess it sent the message that a movement is not afraid to break a law, perhaps leading your enemies to wonder what sort of other laws can be broken in the future if the vague demands are not met.
Hopefully, the next movement spawned from popular disgust can learn from the lessons of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Perhaps they will not repeat the same mistakes and find greater success.