The problem with experts
As the movement was in its early stages, Occupy Wall Street played itself out as a living embodiment of the ideal of democracy. Zucotti Park, with its workshops on high finance and its improvised libraries, began to resemble the ideal of the Greek agora, a space where citizens could come together to freely exchange their ideas. The movement began to draw semi-celebrity thinkers and activists who spoke before the demonstrators.
One of the more interesting speakers was Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. While many in the occupy movement and The Left more generally tend to view the tea party as a stumbling block in contemporary American politics, he advised occupiers to see the tea party as a sister movement. Although he didn’t have anything positive to say about them, the crowd, using the improvised “human microphone” technique of amplification, was forced to repeat these words that they may not have agreed with: “don’t look at them as the enemy.”
Some could brush this aside with an easy cliche frequently heard when talking politics in DC that runs something like this: “the further out you go on the political spectrum, the more similar both sides become.” The subtext of this remark is that, if you’re not a pragmatic moderate, you’re crazy. Zizek, however, meant something else. The rise of populist movements such as these in Western democracies indicates an ever-louder rebuttal to the credentials of the political establishment.
Now may be the time to look for common ground between the tea party and the occupy movement if we are going to revitalize democracy at home. I think this is easier than many might think.
No party or organization has been able to fully co-opt these movements. They have remained aloof of any party affiliation while candidates for office have tried to speak the language of the disaffected. Some have wished these populist groups would stop forcing parties away from the center and even view them as the main obstacle to getting things done in Congress. Tea partyers are seen as pushing an extremist agenda to weaken the state and occupiers are seen as leveling extremist criticism against the economic system rather than a few malfeasant individuals.
However, these movements should be properly viewed together as a rejection of the managerial politics that dominates Western democratic states today. While we are constantly confronted with the “low approval ratings” of Congress, these ratings come with a pseudo-demand for the governing body: “do something.” We fret that nothing is being done because the parties (or just one) are being too ideologically rigid and they should come back to the center in order to compromise on some “solutions.” The demand that Congress simply “do something” is a demand for more of the same, a demand that more and more Americans are abandoning.
This is the deadlock of our national discourse at the moment and it led me to think on an interesting portion of SFCG’s mission statement. Common ground isn’t identified with compromise. Indeed:
Finding common ground does not mean settling for the lowest common denominator. It’s about generating the highest. Often when people disagree, eventually they have to meet in the middle and everyone has to compromise. What we’re talking about is creating a new, “highest common denominator.” Not having two sides meet in the middle, but having them identify something together that they can aspire to and are willing to work towards.
When taking both sides of a discussion seriously, “the truth of each competing point of view can be appreciated” and we can confront the deadlock. Of course, the truth of both positions discussed here is that compromise has led to a stagnant status quo in which the average citizen no longer feels empowered. Those in the tea party and those in the occupy movement are finished with the lowest common denominator.
Some Americans thought they would get the highest common denominator simply by voting for a historic president. This has not been the case. Democracy, rather than a quadrennial function, is becoming an insistent call to reshape governmental and financial institutions.
Mainstream political discourse tends to speak of coming together to get things done as if our problems simply required a technical solution. As a response, many on the right have opposed the idea of “insiders” and career politicians taking the reins in Washington. They do not want someone to enter office with the intent of working within a system that many feel is not concerned with the needs of the many. There is no technical means of binding a people together.
This was the same sentiment that sent Barack Obama to the White House in 2008 but which has been consistently disappointed. Occupiers share this sentiment and this should be seen as a point of common ground. They are against the idea of industry insiders being given positions within regulatory commissions that “oversee” and ease restrictions on the very sectors that enriched them. These were the practices that led to our current economic situation.
Rather than conceiving sweeping plans to draw Americans together as a people united in a cause, politics has become a systematized field of inputs and outputs to be measured by specialists. Policy, therefore, as pointed out in a recent article from The Atlantic, is executed by a cadre of professional technicians. As individuals increasingly feel divorced from this decision-making process, the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid” takes on new meaning.
Is democracy dangerous?
Many on both the left and right balked as the government had no choice but to give money collected from regular people to prop up institutions involved in irresponsible lending practices. Then, as governmental spending soared in an effort to keep credit markets from grinding to a halt, the specter of austerity set in over American politics. The bitter debate over the debt ceiling increase left the two major parties rushing to blame the other for the bitter pill the average citizen was going to have to swallow.
This, however, was a moment that could have been an opportunity for both those on the left and the right to come together around a shared problem. Institutional factors throughout the governmental and financial sectors led to our tipping point. It’s not too late to begin reframing these issues with an eye toward ending the finger-pointing and beginning the real work ahead.
Rather than blame each other for the downgrade of our national debt’s investment rating, we should remind each other what happened when this downgrade occurred. As The Nation pointed out last year, Standard & Poor, the very company that gave the highest rating to the “toxic” assets at the heart of our recent financial crisis, downgraded American debt because our politics had become too toxic. Here, we saw how financial interests interfered with our democracy because it wasn’t convenient for everyone’s spreadsheet.
The world over, we are being told that politics is too dangerous to be left to the partisan rabble. We are told that ideological purity is getting in the way of pragmatic decision-making but perhaps pragmatism itself, in its ceaseless mission to quell uncertainty in the markets, is responsible for the rise of populist politics. A better example of ideology would be institutions that are unable to see their role in popular discontent.
This is where the two major grassroots movements right now in American politics can begin to see in each other the mirror of their own disempowerment. Sure, the tea party sees the state as the enemy, not the economic system itself. However, this need not end the discussion. As mentioned above, it is easy to show that actors from the economic realm are able to regulate our politics and limit the freedom that those in the tea party want to defend. It is also just as easy to see points of agreement with the tea party on the role of the state in restricting liberty.
One such point for dialogue is raised by a hard-hitting piece from Barbara Ehrenreich on the governmental practices that impoverish those striving to climb out of poverty. When reading this piece, it is clear that the skepticism of the Right towards government programs is not entirely misplaced. Ehrenreich remarks that: “The impression is left of a public sector that’s gone totally schizoid.” While local and national governments offer safety-net programs for the poor, they enable large-scale wealth extraction from these very people through an onerous series of penalties.
She details a list of minor offenses such as flicking a cigarette butt out of your car window, having a messy lawn, and even putting one’s feet on a subway seat where the perpetrators either have to spend time in jail or pay fines. These fines aim to generate revenue at the local level but tend to have a big impact on the poor. Those on the Right and in the tea party are frequently characterized as callous and unconcerned with the plight of the least well-off among us. A more productive way forward would be to acknowledge how many on the right support charities that provide a safety net for the poor rather than put their faith in some well-intentioned government agency.
Who is to say that the tea party isn’t right to be angry at governmental hypocrisy? Ehrenreich notes that, by compounding fines the indigent are unable to pay with other disciplinary actions like prison or the revocation of driver’s licenses, the state ensures that those below the poverty line are unable to work their way above it. Conservatives don’t want people to be poor. The Right is adamant about the ability of the individual to change their conditions. If the occupy movement were to leverage the tea party’s criticism of the state by saying the state inhibits this upward mobility, perhaps they could be convinced to hear what occupiers would have to say.
Dialogue about space
In short, what I am saying is that the debate over whether one should criticize the role of the state or the role of capitalism in the limitation of, at least, our subjective experience of freedom, is unnecessary. When someone demands you choose either/or, the only answer, the answer that brings both sides into a common task is: “Both.” These are parallel critiques that can be productively fitted together. Each one, hived off from the other, simply does not go far enough.
If we in the peacebuilding world are concerned with “creating space for dialogue,” we need to be sensitive to the reality that rejuvenating democratic participation and linkages between these seemingly rival movements now requires a dialogue about the space where politics takes place. It is a positive development when conversations about freedom in America shift away from a private enjoyment that wants to be left alone and put the emphasis back on gatherings that re-appropriate public space.
In short, the tea party and the occupy movement are trying to bring democracy back to the people and mobilize alternatives to the lowest common denominator. These two movements are the beginning of a search for what we at SFCG think is still possible: the highest common denominator. It’s time to start figuring out how to channel this energy in ways that will bring about real change rather than slogans about it.