How Occupy Wall Street could succeed

at 05:26 PM ET, 10/03/2011

Occupy Wall Street has captured the media spotlight and popular momentum, spreading to other cities across the United States. But what would it take for the burgeoning protest movement to have a real impact? Those who’ve closely studied social movements explain how Occupy Wall Street would have to evolve to succeed.

First, the movement would have to attract institutional support, garnering both a broad coalition and a specific agenda. So far, its objectives have remained hazy. “Labor, lefty Democrats . . . mainstream people associated one way or another with the Democratic Party, they could help to channel the energy of the protests,” says Michael Kazin, a Georgetown historian and author of “American Dreamers,” which chronicles the rise of the American left. Progressive groups such as MoveOn and Van Jones’ Take Back the American Dream have begun cheering on Occupy Wall Street, but it’s unclear how they’ll relate to the movement.

In truth, well before Occupy Wall Street began, unions and community organizers had been holding regular local protests against the financial sector’s predatory practices, as Peter Dreier, a political science professor at Occidental College, points out. In California, for example, an anti-foreclosure movement has united the SEIU union with the likes of Americans for Community Empowerment against specific banks. “The two movements have to come together . . . then they have to organize around specific demands and specific targets,” Dreier suggests.

Without more specific goals or targets, Occupy Wall Street will have trouble declaring victories that go beyond the demonstrations themselves — mistaking successful demonstrating tactics for a successful broader strategy, Kazin explains. Simply prolonging the protests while garnering media attention may help them spread to other cities, but they won’t have a lasting impact if there isn’t a concrete agenda or a specific vision of what demonstrators want to see, he says. As other social movements have found, “you have to win things, you have to get people feeling like they have some kind of power. Winning means negotiating, winning means compromising. You’ve got to start negotiating over real things with banks and politicians.”

The problem is that the Wall Street protesters might not be amenable to joining a movement with an institutional political agenda. “It’s different from the tea party . . . where most people in it were happy to support the most conservative Republicans. Whereas these people are suspicious of party politics altogether,” Kazin says.

The target of the protests —Wall Street and corporate greed — is very broad. As a result, the movement lacks a public face to attach to its complaints. “You need victims who can be their spokespeople. . . . You don’t get a sense of people who are involved in the protest have experienced the kind of layoffs or foreclosures that are getting people angry,” says Dreier. “It’s more like Woodstock on Wall Street.”

That being said, if Occupy Wall Street is still a fledgling effort, and even if it has a longer lifespan, its supporters on the left may have to be patient to see the impact of any movement seeking to change economic policy and alleviate inequality. “This is the first stab of doing something — it’s inevitably going to be incoherent, disorganized,” says Kazin. He points out that conservative organizing on economic issues took decades to make a large-scale difference. “It’s going to take some time. The right really saw that [organizing] starting in 1970s, and in some ways it’s only come to fruition now.”

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