The New Protest Era

We are at the beginning of a new period of mass protests that will reshape American politics.

There’s evidence all around us that we are at the beginning of a new era of mass protests. An era that might be similar in some ways to previous ones in American history: the uprising that powered the War of Independence, the abolitionist crusade that led to the Civil War and the “new birth of freedom,” the great labor upheavals of the 1930s that gave us mass industrial unions and what we have of a welfare state, and the Black Freedom movement and protests against the Vietnam War decades later.

None of these protest eras have been exclusively American. The currents of emancipatory thinking that fueled the American Revolution also fueled the French Revolution; abolitionism spanned the Atlantic; the European protesters of 1968 were inspired by SNCC; and protests against the Vietnam War spread across the globe.

It is hard to fix a firm beginning for a sprawling, history-changing movement, which is inevitably fueled by disparate grievances and disparate inspirations. This current moment probably began with the Zapatistas, then erupted again in Tunisia and Tahrir Square, and again in the mass anti-austerity actions in Europe, including French riots, the protests of UK Uncut and the Spanish indignados, as well as student strikes in Quebec and Chile.

In this country, the highpoints of the period so far have been the Wisconsin uprisings, where students and community members rallied and occupied the State Capitol to defend public-sector workers; the Chicago Teachers Union strike, where teachers won against a notoriously hardball mayor because they reached out to parents and students in local communities; Occupy Wall Street and its many offshoots; and now the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina.

All signs suggest there is more to come, with students and fast food, retail, and domestic workers in motion.

Even at this early stage, the currents have been remarkably successful at doing one of the things protest movements do well. They have managed to raise issues that politicians and the media usually ignore and to project these issues into the public sphere. They have done this using a distinctive protest repertoire of antics and noise and crowd actions. Before Occupy, there was not much discussion of the depredations of Wall Street and extreme inequality, at least not by politicians and the press. But how could the resonance of “We are the 99%,” brilliantly projected onto the walls of skyscrapers and chanted everywhere, long be ignored? Would Barack Obama be proposing a hike in the minimum wage without Occupy and the rising murmur of discontent that it encouraged among millions of low-wage workers?

Changing public discourse is an accomplishment, and so is changing the rhetoric of politicians, but by itself they are unlikely to have a big impact on public policy. American politics is not, after all, mainly about public opinion. It is about powerful interest groups, their armies of lobbyists on alert at every stage of the policy process, and the propaganda machines that business funds.

The movements have to take a lesson from successful upsurges of the past about the kind of power that can match the power of triumphant corporations. They have to discover the power of disruption.

I do not mean raucous and noisy actions, although part of whatever a movement does is likely to be raucous and noisy. Rather, disruptive power draws on the recognition that virtually all of us are tied together in the tight and fragile networks of cooperation we call society. All of us do what we do each day following scripts specific to our roles in those networks. We cross at the light, pay our fare at the subway, go to school and the assigned homeroom, or to our job where we follow the prescribed routines, then come home and pay our bills, and so on. For the institutions that constitute society to function, we have to perform the duties attached to our assigned roles.

If we don’t — if we refuse cooperation — not only can one institution break down, but the repercussions can spread widely. Think, for example, of what would happen if the thousands of domestic workers who work as nannies refused to show up. The affected households would, of course, be distraught, but so would the businesses where female Wall Street executives, media moguls, and advertising executives work.

Although Occupy Wall Street had some communication triumphs, it did not exercise much disruptive power, the minor inconveniences of occupied public spaces and loud marches notwithstanding. But Occupy did have a brash and brilliant idea about disruptive power. It proposed a mass withholding of the repayment of debts at a time when student debt had topped a trillion dollars —  this on top of trillions in mortgage, credit card, and other forms of consumer debt.

The cultural stigma against reneging on debt is awesome, but so is its disruptive potential. The banks carry these loans on their books as assets, and the repercussions of making those assets insecure would be huge. For just that reason, of course, the arsenal of retributions would be frightening, including wage garnishment and bad credit ratings, as well as legal action against the instigators of a debt strike. Almost surely for these reasons, the idea has not gained much traction so far.

But as the larger currents of defiance and anguish spread, including to the rapidly growing service sector and its low-wage workforce, so do the possibilities of disruption multiply. Service-sector workers cannot be replaced as easily by workers in the Global South, but strikes in myriad small retail and fast-food outlets can be hard to organize, and the Walmart behemoth of stores and warehouses has demonstrated its determination to fight worker insurgency. No question, these battles will be hard fought. And a retail chain is not a steel or automobile plant; the reverberations of a shutdown are less severe and less widespread. But there are also huge hospitals, universities, schools, and financial centers, and we have yet to see how strikes in these institutions would spread through communities and the economy.

There is another aspect of protest movements that has been given insufficient attention: the way they intertwine with electoral politics. They can be nourished or starved at birth by the political discourse created therein. As a movement grows, its successes are usually dependent on its ability to cause disarray and cleavage in electoral politics.

This isn’t the way many activists usually think. Rather, they are likely to see movement and electoral work as alternative paths to political change. And activist groups typically do choose to work on one or the other. But this does not mean that movements are unaffected by electoral politics, or that elected politicians are unaffected by movements.

To the contrary, they are in continuous dialogue. For most people, politics is defined by elections and the fears and possibilities that campaigning politicians highlight or ignore. Politicians, prodded by the prospect of gaining or losing blocs of voters, may make promises and stir the hopes of prospective supporters with such talk as Obama’s “hope and change” or FDR’s promises to “build from the bottom up and not from the top down,” to put “faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” Or they may denigrate and disparage and crush the hopes of excluded groups with discussion of welfare queens and Willy Horton, appealing to the hate and envy of other blocs of voters to the same end of gaining electoral advantage.

This rhetoric can matter well beyond the particular election that gives rise to it. FDR helped to encourage a great uprising of industrial workers that did, for a time, change American society. Ronald Reagan helped to reverse those changes by activating the racism of the white majority and crushing the hopes that had fueled the Black Freedom movement.

So what about now? Obama’s rhetoric attracted young, minority, and poor voters in large numbers and helped get him elected in 2008, and some of his early initiatives, particularly his stimulus legislation, were also somewhat encouraging. Then, as Republican and interest-group resistance mounted, egged on by the Tea Party, the messages from the President became ambiguous, if not disheartening. It is not hard to see some of the reasons why. The crisis of the Great Recession seemed to be over, and interest-group politics was in command, while the spigots of big money had been opened wider than ever by the Citizens United decision.

There are other possibilities for the fruitful interplay of movement and electoral politics, particularly at the municipal level. The electoral left seems to be growing stronger in cities. The surprise landslide election of Bill de Blasio in New York City was itself — in ways impossible to measure but equally impossible to ignore — promoted by the Occupy movement. De Blasio campaigned on the Occupy message of extreme inequality, and confidently trashed the record of his billionaire three-term predecessor Michael Bloomberg.

De Blasio’s first initiatives are revealing. Like many, including David Brooks and Paul Ryan, he wants to do something for the poor, beginning with poor children, so he is proposing universal pre-kindergarten classes for the city’s children. What’s different about de Blasio’s proposal is his insistence that it be paid for by a new tax on the rich. Redistribution!  This packet of proposals moves part of the way toward affixing responsibility for growing poverty.

Like Occupy, de Blasio’s tale of inequality has villains. And to bolster the narrative, de Blasio followed up his effort to get state authority for the new tax with a proposal that the state legislature also give him authority to raise the minimum wage in the city. This, indeed, was bracing.

The de Blasio phenomenon owes a lot to Occupy and its offshoots. He may have to repay the debt. The new regime in New York is likely to encourage the stirrings of protest among low-wage workers, stiffen the backbone of public-sector employees whose contracts the new administration will have to negotiate, as well as energize students, the poor and working class, and the community groups that have virtually fallen off the chessboard of New York municipal politics.

The future for the city is likely to be turbulent. But for the 99%, it is also likely to be brighter than it has been in a long time. Could New York City, the home of American social democracy, rise again? Could Boston? Or Chicago or Los Angeles? It’s worth trying. The coming period gives us a chance.