Occupy Wall Street has been getting attention from the likes of President Obama, Herman Cain and Mitt Romney, but protestors are less than eager to associate with mainstream politics. (SHANNON STAPLETON/REUTERS)

Is this what democracy looks like? That’s perhaps the first question prompted by the swirl of tents, signs, news choppers and police motorcycles that have colored the Occupy Wall Street protests. But there are two other questions we should be asking as well. Is democracy even possible in a context of extreme instability and social inequality, in which 1 percent of the population owns and polices the other 99 percent? And who, among our distinguished set of 2012 candidates, really wants to narrow this gap?

Thus far, the Occupy movement is checking “None of the Above” on the ballot box. Since mid-September, it has instead decided to represent itself in the streets. And if you think there aren’t concrete, policy-related demands being made there, have another look: Everything from education to housing, health care, environment, energy and security are up for grabs. All of these institutions are in need of fixing, and all of them are making the list.

These acts of self-representation—or direct democracy—do not compute among mainstream politicians and their pundits. Occupy does not speak the language of party or ideology, and this has not boded well for a system that relies on polls, predictability and reductive thought. Social movements are, by their very nature, complex, organic and indeterminate. They operate at the deepest levels of how we view each other and the world we live in.

This movement is no exception. You can’t reduce this kind of public outcry to dichotomies like liberal and conservative, or Blue and Red. And you certainly can’t dismiss it as fringe and un-American. Occupy is a popular movement, not a Tea Party, and the act of sticking up for yourself is as American as apple pie.

Despite this apparent disconnect, the Occupy movement has received honorable mention at the highest levels of government, though I suspect this has more to do with polls and constituencies than with genuine understanding. After a Time Magazine survey revealed that 54 percent of Americans actually support these rabble-rousers, our politicians started to take notice. Occupy is actually more popular among the American people than the U.S. Congress—and that must really hurt.

That 54-percent figure was likely behind flip-flopper Mitt Romney’s overnight change of heart. Just days into October, Romney called the protesters “dangerous” instigators of “class warfare.” A week later, he switched gears and expressed “worry” for the 99 percenters. All the sudden this multi-millionaire, private-sector guru has become a man of the people. Who knew?

Then there’s Barack Obama. The guy we all wanted to love. With his usual charm, he empathized with the Occupy-ers, said not everyone in Corporate America was playing by the rules and, once again, took us on a stroll down Main Street. But in the tug of war between Main Street and Wall Street, Obama has made his loyalties clear. Just take a look at the long list of Wall Street contributors to his campaign. Unfortunately, Mr. President, you are the company you keep.

Finally there’s the ultra-rich, ultra-conservative pizzaman, Herman Cain. Cain’s nothing if not consistent about his distaste for the OccuPie. He’s too busy defending his controversial 999 tax plan to consider the needs of the 99. Not a shocker. It takes a special person to kick his fellow American when down, and his “whiner” and “jealous American” comments did just that. I think it’s safe to say that Occupy Cadillac is not on the movement’s agenda.

So is it really any wonder that the people of Occupy want no part of the electoral circus? Why in the world would a grassroots, anti-corporate movement align itself with these guys? I mean, if it looks like corruption and tastes like corruption, then it’s probably corruption.

But at the end of the day, Romney, Obama and Cain are only symptoms of a much deeper problem. Corporate-sector experience has become a golden gateway to political power, and this inner circle is essentially closed to average citizens, regardless of their knowledge and experience.

Our top political and economic institutions are not structured as representative bodies in any real sort of way. Rather, the idea of representation is being used to legitimize the vast decision-making powers of the ruling elite. Few people sit at the helm of this giant ship, and some of the ones who do are incompetent. With cracks in the hull expanding each day, the 99 percent are feeling powerless to change course and stay afloat.

The Occupy movement is an indicator of this powerlessness. But it also suggests a new direction. The radically democratic, leaderless aspect of this movement raises the question of how cooperation and mutual concern can replace competition as an underlying principle in building communities and social institutions. Our teachers already know this. They’ve discovered that most children learn better in mutually supportive groups, working with a variety of people in intimate and productive settings.

Instead of playing the blame game of who created this mess, perhaps our elected officials should consider the input of the American people when thinking about how to clean it up. Or perhaps the Occupy movement itself will innovate new, more egalitarian institutions despite them, ones that can meet the demands of a truly participatory democracy. Not the one we’re told we have, but the one that we, the 99 percent, really deserve.

Heather Gautney, PhD, is an assistant professor of sociology at Fordham University and author of Protest and Organization in the Alternative Globalization Era (Palgrave Macmillan).

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Read more:

Heather Gautney: What is Occupy Wall Street? The history of leaderless movements

Robert Monks: Occupy Wall Street protests and ‘The Decline of the West’