Protests in New York: the American Tahrir Square, Seattle 1999 redux, or progressive Tea Party?

occupy wall street

This poster was designed by Adbusters for the “Occupy Wall Street” protests that are taking place right now. Regardless of how you feel about the protests, the visual juxtaposition in this poster is beautiful. And while the headline is confusing (more on that in a moment), the tagline (“bring tent”) is brilliant.

The event in question started two weeks ago with 500-750 protestors in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. Things might have fizzled out if not for a strong-armed response from law enforcement, which included the use of pepper spray on several protestors who (judging from the video) did nothing to warrant it. The resulting coverage has raised the profile of the protests. The Transport Workers Union and other parts of the labor movement have expressed support. So have various public figures like Noam Chomsky, Cornell West and Michael Moore.

Tahrir Square this is not

The Occupy Wall Street movement has made unabashed analogies to the Arab Spring revolutions and Egypt’s Tahrir Square. But it’s too much of a stretch, in my opinion, to suggest that America’s domestic troubles are similar. There are real problems in our country and a lot of people are struggling, but you lose credibility when you lose perspective.

You also need to be clear on your solutions. The Tahrir Square protestors knew one thing for certain: Mubarak had to go. In contrast, it’s not clear what the Wall Street occupiers want. The headline on the poster above (“what is our one demand?”) was not a rhetorical question: the “plan” was to show up, then figure out what to demand. In general, the protestors want to reduce the political power of big corporations and financial institutions. But what does that mean in practice? According to an Adbusters post from July, the primary candidate for reform was this: “a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.” That sounds like a punt to me. It ignores both the need for actionable policy reforms, and the political economy of implementing those reforms. Allow me a short digression to explain that further.

In an earlier part of my career, I worked for an advocacy organization promoting governance reforms in DC and at the state/local level. I learned that it’s really, really hard to organize around campaign finance and other political process issues in the US. The necessary reforms are too wonky, and too many steps removed from the kitchen-table issues that Americans care about. If you’re lucky, a clear political scandal will create an opening. You have to seize that moment. That’s what happened in Connecticut after a 2004 corruption scandal landed the governor in prison, leading to the establishment of a Clean Elections system. A similar opening occurred in early 2006 when the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal broke.

The Wall Street occupiers are hoping that the financial crisis will perform a similar function to a political scandal. The “We Are The 99%” messaging hopes to spark a broad-based movement to demand reforms. However, acute political scandals must be met with specific reforms. In the case of the Abramoff scandal, advocacy groups were caught flat-footed, so the resulting reforms in congressional ethics policies were minor. The financial crisis is far more complicated than those other scandals, so it’s hard to communicate what changes should come. “Establish a Presidential Commission”? Sorry, that won’t cut it. It’s too vague to build a constituency around. Even if it happens, how would the movement maintain momentum and cohesion to ensure that the commission recommends and Congress implements meaningful reforms? (And if you think going directly to the people is a better option, sometime I’ll tell you about the thrashing voters gave to the “Reform Ohio Now” campaign in 2005 and California’s Prop 89 in 2006. I had front-row seats to both.)

Since the start of the occupation, the protestors have crafted a list of 11 separate “one demands”. I’m not sure that’s an improvement. Most of them are big (“ending poverty”) and/or vague (“ending the modern gilded age”). While small reforms are easily scuttled, big reforms are too threatening for most Americans. Our country’s political/economic system is, on the whole, pretty darn good to us. As a result, Americans are highly vested in the status quo. We have a lot to lose if the boat rocks too much. That’s not the case for the Arab Spring revolutionaries.

Given the different scale of the problems and the proposed changes, Occupy Wall Street will hardly amount to a Tahrir Square moment. The similarities start and end at the tactical level.

Nor is it the Battle of Seattle

WTO protestsThe 1999 World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle were met with massive street protests. These demonstrations drew attention to the negative impacts of globalization, especially in the developing world. The protestors demanded better rules and institutions to guide the global economy. Some were opposed to globalization altogether. The closed-door processes of the WTO became a focal point for these concerns.

A comparison with the Battle of Seattle highlights a major shortcoming of the Wall Street occupiers. The WTO protests started from a broad-based coalition led by labor unions, NGOs, religious organizations, students, and others. In contrast, the Wall Street protest seems to pride itself on being leaderless (taking a page from Egypt’s playbook) and it started with little institutional support from any established groups. But leaderless movements don’t make as much sense when the government isn’t trying to kill protest leaders. Established organizations bring resources and popular legitimacy. These are strengths of the American system, imperfect as it is. Movements should leverage those strengths.

This is more than merely a strategic weakness. The Seattle coalition had deep and longstanding connections with a global citizen movement dedicated to creating a better form of globalization. It organized in solidarity with others around the world. The Wall Street protest doesn’t seem to have similar connections, either globally or domestically. That means the movement is primarily accountable to the narrow slice of the “99%” who show up at Zuccotti Park. There’s a difference between saying your movement is organized in solidarity with those who are struggling against truly repressive regimes, and actually working with those people.

Occupy Wall Street as a progressive version of the Tea Party

To me, Occupy Wall Street looks more like a progressive version of the Tea Party than anything else. Both movements spring from an underlying anger at the current system. That anger is rooted in a sense that our ideals are being violated to historic proportions, and that we are powerless to stop this unless we mobilize together. And the result – in both cases – is a set of poorly articulated demands that resonate deeply with their adherents while being somewhat perplexing to outsiders.

I’ll speculate that the Wall Street occupiers would shudder to have their movement compared to the Tea Party. I make the comparison not to debase the Wall Streeters, but rather to elevate them from their frequent portrayal as just a bunch of hippies. If the Wall Streeters’ message resonates with a large enough constituency, they might influence the political debate in the same way the Tea Party does. I’m skeptical that they’ll reach the same level, but already they’re gathering more support and media coverage. Maybe they’ll amount to something after all. If they get bigger and can create real political reforms, I’ll happily amend my analysis.

I can hear you thinking: “Wait a second, isn’t this a blog on international development…”

Yes, it is. Here’s friend-of-the-blog Brandon Wu describing (on his own blog) why you should care about the Occupy Wall Street protests:

U.S. policy has huge, far-reaching consequences for policy and outcomes around the world, perhaps especially in developing countries…

With that in mind, I submit that for those of us who work in development and are U.S.-based or U.S. citizens abroad, U.S. social movements should be higher on our radar. Right now, the Occupy Wall Street movement is starting to grab more of my attention. The financial crisis has roots in Wall Street and U.S. financial deregulation (as well as financial deregulation through international instruments like the WTO Financial Services Agreement, which were pushed by the U.S. and U.S. corporations). This crisis is obviously global, with far-reaching effects on developed and developing countries alike. Surely a nascent movement that seeks to shine a light on some of the major actors that caused this crisis deserves the attention of the development world, even if it might be easier to pigeonhole it as domestic U.S. politics best left to more partisan types.

I hope that my description of Occupy Wall Street as a progressive Tea Party doesn’t qualify as an attempt to “pigeonhole it as domestic U.S. politics best left to more partisan types”. We should also be paying attention to the Tea Party, especially as it influences US policy on issues like foreign aid spending and immigration. Both movements say something significant about the state of American politics today. Both are manifestations of the feeling that the country is heading in the wrong direction. And both could have dramatic impacts on the prospects for global development.

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The poster image was downloaded from this blog; I’m not sure about its original source. The image of protestors praying in Tahrir Square is from Ben Curtis/AP, via the Guardian. The image of the Seattle protests is from Steve Kaiser, used under a Creative Commons license.