Occupy Wall Street is a Democracy Movement

By Mike Dorf

The notion that Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has no demands is fueled in part by an arguably deliberate media obtuseness.  Judging from the movement's core catch-phrase -- "We are the 99%" -- it is clear that the movement centers around a complaint about economic inequality

There is, nonetheless, a kernel of truth to the media trope that OWS and its far-flung spinoffs remain an amorphous movement with demands no more concrete than, as my Cornell Government Department colleague Sid Tarrow puts it, "Recognize us!"  I agree with Tarrow and others that it is too soon to tell whether OWS will fade away or coalesce into a more conventional political movement, and if the latter, what its central focus will be.  But I also want to suggest that we may be looking at OWS through the wrong frame.

Most observers take OWS to be a nascent movement within American constitutional democracy.  Viewed this way, it is logical to ask what concrete policy changes the OWS protesters seek.  Do they want higher capital gains taxes?  A constitutional amendment overturning the Citizens United decision?  More money for mortgage relief?  Yet what if we view OWS not as a movement for anything within democracy but as a movement for democracy?

In this view, we should not be comparing OWS to the civil rights movement or the women's movement but to the Philippine "people power" movement of 1986, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and the Arab Spring of 2011.  Nobody thought to question any of those protesters about their concrete aims: What exactly would be the land policy post-Marcos?  What role would the state play in the economy if the Tiananmen protesters had succeeded in deposing the Chinese Communist Party?  What version of Islamic finance would be used following the removal from power of Ben Ali and Mubarak?  Such questions would have been rightly seen as premature because everyone understood that the protesters in these movements sought, first and foremost, democracy -- with most concrete policy choices to be made within the framework of democracy once it was established.

It may be difficult to see OWS as a democracy movement because the United States already has democracy, but from the protesters' perspective, this is hardly clear at all.  The protesters believe that government serves the needs of the rich and powerful, rather than the considerably greater needs of the poor and middle class.

That may describe OWS today but not forever.  Where will OWS end up?  I can imagine at least three sorts of possibilities.  One is that the movement injects some life into progressive politics but then runs out of steam, becoming something like a conventional NGO, much in the way that MoveOn.org, after its founding as a grass-roots movement to oppose the Clinton impeachment, became a kind of all-purpose advocacy and lobbying shop on the liberal/left.  (Not surprisingly, MoveOn supports OWS.)

Writing in the NY Times last week, James Miller warned of a second possibility: That a small number of extremists could hijack the OWS movement, much in the way that anarchists have attempted -- with some success -- to hijack the anti-globalization movement.  The risk here is less that blood will run in the streets (although some might), but that violent tactics turn public opinion against the mass of peaceful OWS protesters.  OWS thus far has shown remarkable sensitivity to this risk and has taken steps to guard against it, but given the spontaneous nature of the rallies around the country and the world, it is impossible to rule this path out.

For me, the most exciting possibility is that OWS remains committed to directly deliberative democracy but solves the problem of scale.  With Chuck Sabel, I have written at considerable length about what direct deliberation looks like within the context of representative government, rather than as a replacement for it.  For OWS to embrace what we call "democratic experimentalism," however, would appear to require OWS to come to see itself as a movement for structural political change within the existing political framework.

At first blush, that may seem unlikely.  OWS seems to have an uncompromising commitment to unfiltered direct deliberation (rather than the direct deliberation nested in representative government that Sabel and I and others imagine).  The "human microphone," born of necessity when the authorities forbade electric amplification, might be thought to serve as a metaphor for the movement as a whole.

But on reflection, I think that OWS support for any particular form of deliberation is thin.  Few people join mass street movements to express a preference for direct deliberation over representative government.  The rank and file of OWS may accept or even like the directly deliberative "general assemblies" but only because they feel so strongly that the established representative government does not hear their voices or represent their interests.  Their goal is a politics that responds to people's needs, not any particular form of government.

There is thus potential in OWS for efforts aimed at campaign finance reform, as Larry Lessig suggested on NPR last week, as well as for something like democratic experimentalism.  For either of those to occur, however, would require that OWS come to see itself as working within the system.  To my mind, that is what makes OWS potentially so interesting -- the possibility that it could become both a democracy movement in the way that liberal revolutionary movements have been on the international scene and a movement for reform within the existing American framework.