Forum

Opening the Debate

Responding

We have closely followed the Occupy movement and welcome both the attention it has drawn to societal problems and its potential to re-democratize American politics. We are publishing a series of opinion essays by Stanford University professors exploring key issues raised by Occupy.
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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

My previous piece discussed the ways in which extreme inequality threatens the ideals and practices of American democracy. It closed with the following note:

The litany of our society’s inequities and their distorting effects on our nominal democracy are daunting. Are they too dire to change? Absolutely not. To the extent that they are products of specific political trends that stretch back 30 years, they are amenable to countervailing political processes.

What should these “countervailing political processes” look like? They should, to be sure, include conventional efforts to elect representatives who are committed to reversing the social, economic, and political trends of the past few decades. This is hardly the time to cede the electoral field to an increasingly extremist Republican Party and its Tea Party allies.

That said, significant social change has never been achieved in this country through conventional politics alone. From the outset, the American system was designed to insulate the federal government from radical change. The founding fathers were revolutionaries of an ambivalent and conflicted sort. They prized stability over all else, including any pretense to an egalitarian democracy. Whatever progress we have made moving the country closer to this ideal has been slow, grudging, fragile and, most importantly, achieved during periods of broad progressive ferment by movements that challenged the system from below. All the movements our textbooks now celebrate as part of America’s glorious democratic legacy—from abolition to women’s suffrage, from the labor movement to the African-American struggle for civil rights—were fiercely resisted by the political and economic elite.

Let’s do away with another myth: American history should not be read as the inevitable, progressive realization of a more just and equal union. In many respects, the last 30 years have moved us farther away from that ideal than we were three to four decades ago. It will take yet another period of sustained progressive ferment and the building of a new coalition across racial, class, and regional lines to restore balance to this country, redress the inequities that have been allowed to develop, revitalize democratic practices, and restore faith in the ideal of a just society.

Given all that the Occupy protests have accomplished, why should they morph into the movement that you or I want to see?

What should such a movement look like? Occupy’s many critics suggest it should take a more conventional form, with leaders, a hierarchical structure, and narrowly focused goals, than the effort to date. With the possible exception of goals, I couldn’t disagree more with this line of criticism. These features of the Occupy effort are neither liabilities nor atypical of the other successful progressive movements of our nation’s history. The great majority of them had no centralized, hierarchical structure or single, unitary leader. The image of the “great leader” understandably shapes popular conceptions of social movements. But leaders such as Martin Luther King or Gandhi are exceedingly rare in the annals of broad, sustained progressive movements. And even in King’s case, it would be inaccurate to say that he was the leader of the modern civil rights movement. There were certainly many other leaders of the movement, but more importantly, there was no singular civil rights movement. The movement was, in fact, a coalition of thousands of local efforts nationwide, spanning several decades, hundreds of discrete groups, and all manner of strategies and tactics—legal, illegal, institutional, non-institutional, violent, non-violent. Without discounting King’s importance, it would be sheer fiction to call him the leader of what was fundamentally an amorphous, fluid, dispersed movement.

We tend to think of movements as akin to organizations—that is, as unified, bounded entities pursuing specified goals under the leadership of specific individuals. Biased by this conventional understanding, we urge Occupy protestors to pursue the goals we see as most important using the tactics and organizational structures that make the most sense to us. But given all that the Occupy protests have accomplished and continue to accomplish, why should those groups morph into the movement that you or I want to see? All broad, successful movements start somewhere, with a particular campaign or set of actions serving as the opening wedge. The Occupy protests have served that function, changing the conversation in this country, and creating space—literally and figuratively—within which others can act. The challenge for those of us who identify with the protests is to organize ourselves using whatever structures and towards whatever specific goals we find consistent with the broader struggle. Given the larger economic and political stakes, this is a challenge worthy of our efforts.