The Limits of Protesting: 4 Steps to Make a Difference

I hope everyone is paying attention to the Occupy Wall St. protests.  They have lasted almost a month and a half and now is when the real challenges begin, moving beyond the spontaneous populism that has supported the movement thus far.  As the protests have developed I have had a series of different reactions, going from ambivalence and skepticism to admiration.  From the beginning I have agreed with what drove the protesters to the streets in the first place.  As I have already pointed out the income distribution in this country is terribly distorted.

The genus of the movement is that the economy was destroyed by the financial sector, and yet this wealthy portion of society was bailed out and has returned to making big profits without consequence despite the millions of unemployed left in their wake.  I believe that the banks had to be bailed out during the crisis, but proper regulation was certainly needed to correct for the errors that led to the crisis.  Instead this new mass of the unemployed has exposed an underlying truth of that extensive income gap between the wealthiest and the other 99%.

At the same time, as much as I want to support the Occupy Wall St. movement, the cynic inside me pulls back.  Protesting in and of itself is not particularly likely to change anything (See: Vietnam).  As problems go, economic inequality is a big one and impossibly difficult to address through mere populism alone.  In order for real change to happen the Occupy Wall St. movement needs to evolve and expand in the the face of many challenges.  It has to become more than a bunch of unemployed hippies and liberal 20-somethings in order to drive real and much needed change.  It has to become a whole voting majority.  Here’s what’s needed for the movement to become more than a footnote in this year’s news cycle.

1.  Find a Clear Message

Occupy Wall St.’s objectives remain unclear and vague because it is a decentralized and leaderless mass.  This is part of its organic strength that has allowed it to spread all over the country.  Typically protest movements are defined by a clear and simple call to action that is crystallized in striking banners and slogans.  This particular movement has more or less settled on “We are the 99%”.   This needs to be translated into a specific point, because it’s not so easy or useful to identify and target a very slim part of this country (1%).  What is needed is greater economic equality, of which tax policy is only one component.

Granted, this is no easy task honing in on an actionable goal.  Civil Rights is a clear-cut moral issue.  Wars are simple. Unfortunately income distribution and financial policy is significantly more complicated.  This makes focus all the more crucial.

Importantly, the message cannot be about disregarding capitalism itself.  This economic system defines our nation and our history, and is unquestionably preferable to any other.  While at the moment many are suffering, capitalism itself is not the problem.  The issue is the lack of regulation meant to soften the edges of the system.  It is entirely unhelpful to pursue this as a revolution.  So far this is working.

2. Be Realistic

The current economic disparity has been developing for three decades.  It cannot be changed overnight.  A more equitable system can only come about through government action and this is where the protesters attention should be focused.  While protesters battle police across the country, they need to remember this isn’t about Wall St. or even tax policy.  This is about changing the fundamental distribution of wealth throughout our society where income growth is not exclusive to the richest slice of society.

Attacking financial corporations and CEO’s themselves does little good.  The only effective way to change business practices is through boycotts and investment banks don’t exactly have a product that can be avoided.  At the same time corporate America is not going to become non-profit no matter how many people wave a banner on the street.

Since government action is the only recourse, perspective is needed.  Nothing moves quickly with government and the probability that anything will happen before the election drops to zero given the general animosity and division within the government today.  More than anything the protesters are also battling the ingrained bias for the status quo that exists in both parties.

As things stand Republicans are already upset enough about the Dodd-Frank bill that got passed last year and more than happy to bend over backwards to please the wealthiest in America.  Predictably Republican leaders have had a snide reaction to the protests.  In truth the Democrats aren’t much better at caving to corporate interests either, on full display through the weak reaction towards the big banks and much maligned Affordable Care Act.

The solution is for the movement to define the legislative mandate that the next Congress and President will address. Despite how incredibly ingrained the status quo is, ultimately representatives will respond if the movement grows large enough to significantly impact elections.  It’s the same principal that drove the election of the Tea Party caucus in 2010.

3. Move beyond Protests

For the reasons listed above the protests don’t really have an end-game, mitigating their importance.  So the focus must shift to elections.  While the protests themselves cannot directly enact change they are valuable for the national discussion they are promoting.  But more is needed than protesting, which is a divisive force seen constantly clashing with police and disrupting order.

The immediate objective of the movement should be to target undecided voters and build an electoral force that cannot be ignored  by politicians running for office.  Occupy Wall St. needs to spread the word through traditional tactics like advertisements,  mailers, and direct calling.  Occupiers have received plenty of donations and this is where the money needs to start going.  By only protesting they are allowing their message to be shaped by the media.  Political power will require more message control and dispersion.

4. Don’t Stop

The movement may be over a month in, but it has a long way to go.  All will be for naught if come next year at the election booth no one remembers what took place this year.   Eventually the camping will come to end, winter is coming after all.  But this doesn’t mean the movement has to stop.   There needs to be marches and constant displays to keep the movement in the media spotlight and not let the discussion stray.

Through these steps Occupy Wall St. can come to make a difference instead of fading into memory.  Does anyone remember the Wisconsin protests? Back in March there were a couple months of shenanigans as the new Republican Governor led an assault on public unions.  Since then the recall elections have been staged, but nothing has changed.

I’m sympathetic to Occupy Wall St.  I want to believe a grass-roots movement can make a difference.  But soon enough the movement’s members will need to transfer their energies into something more productive.  Politics.  At the end of the day politicians don’t care about protests, they care about votes and there is a long road to November 2012.