History is on the Occupiers’ side

The Occupy Wall Street protests began like many movements — a small group of committed activists decided to stage a rally and express their frustrations with the political system. 

At first sight, most politicians would have ignored the Occupiers as just another demonstration led by a few dozen college students. But unlike most protests, the Occupy movement has grown massively in a short period of time, spilling over into dozens of U.S. cities, drawing support from activists of all ages, and capturing the nation’s attention. 

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The movement’s momentum continues to grow. Suddenly, the movement demands to be taken seriously. The Occupiers have infused the liberal grassroots sphere with vibrancy in the same way that the Tea Party rejuvenated conservative activists in 2009. But will the Occupy movement transform liberal politics? Will they shape Democrats’ policy agenda as the Tea Partyers influenced the Republicans?

The time is ripe for the Occupy movement to have an impact on political and social reform. Scholars have identified a number of factors associated with the transformative potential of social movements, all of which seem to be on the side of the Occupiers. 

First, a movement must have an organizational and resource capacity to mobilize supporters. The past few weeks of protests coupled with the remarkable public relations skills of the media-savvy activists indicate that the movement has strong capacity. 

Second, a movement must be able to capture the public’s attention. Getting attention has not been a problem for the movement ever since police officers decided to pepper-spray a few nonviolent protestors. And third, a movement needs to have vulnerable targets. This is an easy one for the protestors. The stagnating reputations of Washington policymakers and a declining trust in the American financial sector ensures the activists have plenty of attractive targets.

Conditions are ripe for taking action. And yet, the movement, despite its great success mobilizing participants and attracting constant media attention, has not defined aggressively a clear policy agenda. The Occupiers haven’t yet narrowed on a single susceptible target, despite the ready availability of attractive candidates. 

Instead, the Occupiers seem intent on taking a slow but steady course of action geared around solidarity-building protests and inclusive coalition-building among like-minded individuals and groups. Unlike the Tea Party, which quickly jumped into the political fray by targeting Congress’s proposed healthcare reform, the Occupy movement hasn’t settled on a clear line of attack, leading some to worry that the moment for action will be wasted. 

But there are a number of good reasons for the Occupiers not to bolt headlong into policy debates. The movement is still quite new and the coalitions between diverse activist groups are still fragile. Although the core of this network consists of seasoned activists, many of the participants are novices who have never organized a rally or march before. One of the purposes of the protests is to cultivate participation in grassroots activism and develop the necessary skills and tools needed to sustain an enduring movement. Rushing into policy debate, while certainly satisfying the urges of those demanding immediate change, might prematurely end the formative stage of the movement. 

Members of the movement also see their purpose as being more about instigating a discussion about democratic processes than about demanding political outcomes. Irked by the exclusive tendencies of conventional politics, the Occupiers have created a free space where philosophical assumptions and ideas can be deliberated and dissected, while at the same time developing coherent long-term strategies for change. 

You have to admire the methodical commitment to democratic process and philosophical integrity of the Occupiers, but if the movement is going to have a positive influence on policymaking or electoral politics, the Occupiers will eventually need to get more specific about their demands. 

The tension facing the Occupy movement now is to identify a few specific demands while still maintaining the carefully constructed democratic processes that sustain their leaderless organizational structure. Getting into politics will, of course, raise the possibility of the movement being co-opted by politicians or other interest groups who are eager to capitalize on the movement’s popularity and energy. But at the same time, failing to take any specific actions puts the movement at risk of breaking up into schisms, each with different goals and visions of the future, or gradually fading into obscurity as the media shifts its attention elsewhere. 

Most of the major social and political reforms in U.S. history originated in a social movement. The Occupiers are certainly well-positioned to push reforms of their own design. The Occupy movement just needs to decide for which reforms, if any, it would like to be remembered.

King is an assistant professor at the Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.