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Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Purpose of Protest is Not to Win Friends

I wrote about this briefly yesterday and, given the events of today, it deserves a bit more fleshing out.

To bring you up to speed, Public Policy Polling released a survey yesterday finding that Occupy Wall Street was losing ground in public opinion. At the time, I wrote that this in itself wasn't anything to lose any sleep over, because Occupy Wall Street isn't up for election anywhere. Successful protest movements are seldom extremely popular -- both the anti-war and the anti-segregation movements in the '60s were unpopular at the time, regardless of how Hollywood portrays them now. What's important in a successful protest movement is that people agree with you. The point is to mold the national dialogue -- in other words, to change the subject -- and get people to debate the issue or issues that you believe are of primary importance. It doesn't matter if people approve of how you do it, because generally they won't. Public protest is disruptive and inconvenient, which is the entire point. People talk about inconvenience and, if somewhere in the conversation the sentence "They've got a point, though" pops up, then mission accomplished. It's not about you or getting people to like you, it's about getting people to talk about the issue.

Which was why the PPP's analysis bothered me (emphasis mine):

I don’t think the bad poll numbers for Occupy Wall Street reflect Americans being unconcerned with wealth inequality.  Polling we did in some key swing states earlier this year found overwhelming support for raising taxes on people who make over $150,000 a year. In late September we found that 73% of voters supported the ‘Buffett rule’ with only 16% opposed.  And in October we found that Senators resistant to raising taxes on those who make more than a million dollars a year could pay a price at the polls. I don’t think any of that has changed- what the downturn in Occupy Wall Street’s image suggests is that voters are seeing the movement as more about the ‘Occupy’ than the ‘Wall Street.’  The controversy over the protests is starting to drown out the actual message.


Until today, Occupy Wall Street was in danger of becoming about Occupy Wall Street. That's why the day of action -- focused not on the right to protest, but on Wall Street -- is so welcome. If the conversation is only about the protest, the protesters lose, because everyone misses the damned point.

And the point of the protests is a winner. Other polling backs up Jensen's take; people agree with OWS, even as they disapprove of them. Greg Sargent points to a news Public Religion Research Institute poll [pdf] that finds that the goals of OWS and the wishes of the American people largely coincide.

It finds that 67 percent of Americans agree that government should do more to reduce the gap between rich and poor, which a large majority says is growing. Sixty nine percent favor hiking taxes on millionaires. Fifty seven percent favor eliminating tax breaks for corporations. Sixty seven percent oppose cutting federal programs that help the poor (though a large majority also says the poor are too dependent on government). A plurality, 48 percent, thinks the American Dream — that if you work hard, you’ll get ahead — no longer holds true. These general findings are borne out in many other polls.

So who cares if they approve of the protests? If you're protesting in order to win a popularity contest, you may be using one of the worst tactics in the world. What matters is that you change the conversation. And Occupy Wall Street has. Not long ago, everything was about cutting spending and reducing deficits -- even as polling showed these weren't Americans' primary concerns. People are worried about jobs, they're worried about income inequality, they're worried about the rich getting a free ride on the backs of everyone else. Hell, they're even worried about one of the big OWS issues the right keeps trying to dismiss -- the PRRI poll shows that 66% believe "the government should do more to help students pay for college and pay off student loan debt."

If people are talking about that, you're winning. But if people are debating your right to protest -- and that's the discussion you're encouraging -- then things are starting to derail. You need to get back to the issues or the protest loses all meaning.


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