OK, so things are bad. News reports these days seem like excerpts from a dystopian novel - a really tacky and lame one. But a lot of us are fighting back. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with stories of outrage and posts calling for action, and I’m thrilled to see so much passion and energy devoted to resistance and dissent. On the other hand, we need to take a step back.
I study this stuff for a living. I have a Ph.D. in Social Policy, where my research is focused on understanding how you actually get progressive policies to happen in America. For the last decade I’ve researched American public opinion about race, religion, and politics; and I’ve taught statistics and polling methods to graduate students in public policy. I've studied economics, statistics, politics, psychology. and philosophy. And I’m worried.
I’m worried that all this passionate resistance we’re seeing might end up like that other campaign of passionate activism...
Remember Occupy? It sure seemed like a big deal at the time. Back in 2011, Occupy protesters had a camp in almost every major city in America. Everyone was talking about how finally things were finally going to change.
But Occupy refused to give a list of how exactly it wanted things to change. It wanted to bring the issues of inequality to national attention, to give a voice to the “99%,” but it refused to make any specific demands, or to endorse any specific political figures or party. In the words of Occupy activists and authors Amy Schrager Lang and Daniel Lang/Levitsk,
’demands’ cannot be made... they are not meaningful in a time when an apparently seamless social and economic order is able to absorb and sell back to us anything that can be contained and marketed.
That’s a cool quote, but I’m not really sure what it means.
Did Occupy Succeed?
Flash forward to 2017. Let’s look at economic inequality. Occupy's lasting rhetorical legacy was its attack on the power of "the 1%." Here’s a chart showing the percent of all income in America that was earned by the “top 1%” over the past 30 years.1
Income inequality hasn't gotten any better. Actually, it's gotten worse. In 2011, when Occupy was in full swing, the top 1% were earning around 19% of all income in the US. In 2014, the most recent year we have data for, they were earning around 20%. If Occupy wanted to reduce income inequality, it hasn't had any success so far.
What about our political system? Occupy talked about reducing the influence of money in politics. How's that going? Well...
- The President is a billionaire CEO
- The Secretary Education is a billionaire CEO
- The Secretary of Commerce is a billionare Wall Street investor
- The Secretary of State is the former CEO of ExxonMobil
- The Secretary of the Treasury is a former investment banker and hedge fund manager
If Occupy wanted to reduce the influence of billionaires, CEOs, and Wall Street bankers in politics, it hasn't had much success.
What about Bernie Sanders? Even though Occupy avoided talking about changing the system through “traditional” political channels, Bernie Sanders led a “political revolution” that seemed to epitomize everything that Occupy was about.
And then he lost the Democratic primary by almost 4 million votes.
Now, maybe you believe that some faction of the “1%” (say, members of the DNC) used their power and influence to unfairly deny Bernie the nomination and victory he deserved. Maybe you're right. But if the 1% was able to (fairly or otherwise) deny Bernie Sanders the nomination, then that would imply Occupy must not have been very successful in reducing the power of the 1%.
It’s hard to evaluate the success of a movement that avoided making any actual demands, but even Micha White, who helped found the Occupy movement, has called it a “constructive failure.” And that was before the 2016 election.
How can we make sure we don’t fail again?
The lesson of Occupy is that passionate protests and activism don’t always lead to things actually getting better. The stakes are so much higher today than they were in 2009. Democracy itself could be on the line. We can’t afford to screw this one up.
Even though I was skeptical of Occupy while it was going on, it had an impact on me. I believed in the movement's message about inequality, but instead of joining the the protests, I got a Ph.D. in Social Policy and wrote my dissertation on the political implications of American beliefs about economic inequality.
Now I want to help us avoid making the same mistakes again.
One of the big problems with Occupy was the assumption that as long as we’re doing “what feels right” then everything will somehow work out. If we want to get things done in politics for real, we need specific goals and specific plans for how to achieve them. We need to be willing to wade through some boring data. We need to dig into complex issues and ask ourselves tough questions about what we really know, and what we don’t. We need to admit that we could be wrong.
Activism is important. We need passion and hope. We need catchy slogans like “we are the 99%!” We need sit-ins and protests. We need complex ideas boiled down to a few sentences that can go viral when we can slap them on a Game of Thrones meme. That’s the only way we can get Americans to sit up and do something.
But activism isn't everything. We also need to have a slower, more deliberate discussion, where we bring in data, research, and rational arguments to try and understand what’s going on and what we can do about it.
That’s the sort of discussion I’ll be leading here. In these posts I’ll be presenting data and arguments from a number of different fields that I think can help us engage in effective resistance and produce real, positive results. Because this time, I want us to actually accomplish something.
1 This data comes from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. You can check it out here:
Lang, A. S., & Lang/Levitsky, D. (2012). The Politics of the Impossible. In A. S. Lang & D. Lang/Levitsky (Eds.), Dreaming In Public: Building the Occupy Movement. Oxford, UK: New International Publications
Vasil, A. (2016). What Micah White learned from the failure of Occupy Wall Street. Retrieved from https://nowtoronto.com/news/ecoholic/what-micah-white-learned-from-the-failure-of-occupy-wall-street/