Occupy Wall Street, Flash Movements, and American Politics

NycgafeatureDavid Plotke, one of the smarter observers of social movements and collective action I know of, in Dissent:

I survey the main accounts of what Occupy did and what it might mean. Proponents of these views often claim both to provide analytical insight (this is what OWS was and is) and to express valid preferences (this is what OWS should be).

1. It was a flash movement.

Occupy assembled and expressed anger about economic and social injustice. Not many opinions changed, but the terms of national debate shifted, with durable aftershocks. OWS actions registered deep concern among significant parts of several (mainly left-of-center) publics. Yet OWS as we saw and knew it is gone.

If this is the trajectory—an explosion and then a fast decline toward a nominal but not significant Occupy—no one gets to own it except as a memory. It can’t be reconvened. On this account, with the election season underway, OWS seems like a reminder of the angry public mood of 2011. It is tempting to say that rather than the Tea Party of the left, it was the Herman Cain of the left, but that understates the force of the views OWS expressed and its likely persistence as a symbol.

More important, OWS represents a new kind of political and social effort—intense, broad, brief, and dramatic. Such efforts involve large numbers of people rather than narrow groups. There are leaders and organizers but they do not simply control the movement, which expands rapidly and surprisingly in size and forms.

2. Occupy is a significant current on the left of the Democratic coalition.

While it arrived too late to field its own primary candidates it will be a presence in the 2012 election cycle and perhaps beyond.

Although most OWS supporters hate the Tea Party analogy, here it’s apt. The Tea Party experience shows how political currents can now appear both inside and outside the party system. One hope (for those who want to re-elect Obama) is that OWS as a symbol can attract some independent voters. This may be wishful thinking, insofar as the 2011 Occupy story occurred to such a large extent among people who were already likely Democratic voters and in pro-Democratic settings.