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Occupy Wall Street Puts a Focus on the Need for Political Empowerment

11/01/2011 04:12 pm ET | Updated Jan 01, 2012

I got a chance to speak with Sabeel Rahman, a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute who is working on a project outlining progressive values and goals. We talked about how the Occupy Wall Street protests represent some important forms of political engagement, how progressives can best interact with the movement, and what its lasting impact on our political discourse may be.

Bryce Covert: Now that Occupy Wall Street has been building for a few weeks, what are your initial thoughts on the movement?

Sabeel Rahman: I think that it's potentially an important event in terms of the political discourse. Initially there was a lot of concern about whether they had specific demands, but that isn't really a concern of mine. I think that the value of a movement like this is to put issues on the table and to get people thinking and talking about them. They've raised issues such as inequality, political accountability, and what it means to be a meaningful part of the political process. They are creating a sense that ordinary citizens need to become bigger drivers of public policy and that our predicament is not just an economic one. It's also about political disempowerment.

Whether or not these individuals at the protest are thinking about these exact issues or whether they have a nuanced view of public policy or politics doesn't matter. The real value is that you and I are talking about it and everywhere I go people are talking about it. They are changing the popular discourse about where we are as a country.

The specific policy proposals might come later. They may or may not come from Occupy Wall Street protesters themselves; they might come from sympathetic groups, unions, or advocacy groups. That takes time, but for now there has already been a significant impact.

BC: You've been doing work on the progressive movement and the need for it to become more decentralized and less electorally focused, as it used to be. How does this movement fit in? Is it a manifestation of this?

SR: Occupy Wall Street is interesting in its implications for what politics should look like or what democracy actually is. On the one hand, I think it's a valuable reminder that social change comes from a lot of different sectors. Elections are a big part of how we change real things in our society, but before we can do that effectively we need to change people's ideas and the distribution of political power. Physically occupying space in the city is itself an expression of another form of political power aside from electoral mobilization that instead harnesses the power of protest and engagement with public spaces.

In that sense it's encouraging. But on the other hand, Occupy Wall Street is also a sign of how ineffective our current forms of democratic engagement actually are. If you're worried about all the things that the "We Are The 99%" Tumblr is expressing, but for whatever reason you are hesitant to join a march or a protest, how do you as a citizen express concerns or be a part of changing the conversation? And how can ordinary citizens continue to have a meaningful political voice on an ongoing basis, even after these particular protests dissipate? If we are to be an effective democracy, we need a lot more than elections and protest politics. We need institutions that can engage regular people who are activated by the Occupy movement. We need institutions where they can be participants in the project of governance. That means something that is less institutionalized than elections but more institutionalized than protest politics -- something that can maintain political participation between elections and between moments of protest. Traditionally, political parties or unions played a major role in engaging citizens in this way, but the decline of unions and the shifts in internal party politics make them less effective as channels for ordinary citizens' meaningful participation. We need something more than that, other institutions where people can have an impact. For example, how might we tap some of this energy to reengage with state and local governments? If we had participatory budgeting, which some New York and Chicago city council districts are experimenting with, that would be the kind of institution where more ordinary people could engage regularly and express their views. We don't have those systems yet, but we could really easily and if we did the prospect for progressive social change would be much stronger.

BC: How do Occupy Wall Street's organizing methods specifically fit into your call for a new form of progressive organizing?

SR: I've been watching coverage from afar and haven't experienced it firsthand. But on paper, from what I've seen it does seem like there is a really compelling form of internal, democratic governance within the movement itself. It has a daily general assembly where people can put items on the agenda with open attendance and rules of procedure.

The call and response method for guest speakers at the assemblies is also very interesting. It underscores for me that one of the core beliefs of the movement is this conviction that people ought to be directly involved in politics. The difference between a speaker talking at an audience through a megaphone as opposed to having the other people in the assembly be part of the conversation by relaying messages back and forth and engaging in it in a more direct way is the difference between being a spectator and an active participant in a conversation. This is exactly what I think at its best this movement could provoke us to think about: the difference between us being passive spectator citizens, watching everything play out as the economy collapses around us, compared with being active participants in trying to change the direction of the country.

BC: How do you think progressive activists and politicians should best engage with the movement?

SR: I think that's a really, really good question. It's hard to know, but it is a question that progressives must think about seriously. It is important for progressives who agree with the general thrust of the protest -- themes of inequality, accountability, and self-rule -- to actually engage with them, whether or not they join. Before progressives start talking about ways that they should do things better or ways to tap or co-opt their energy, before playing savior, progressives should at least engage with them, get a sense of what's going on, who are they as individuals, and what is really happening.

One approach would be for established progressive groups to bring some kind of organizational muscle to some of these ideas. For example, state, local, and congressional lawmakers can be generally unresponsive, but as a whole they may respond if constituents start calling them and knocking on their doors. If you are an established progressive and you know who the key policymakers are on certain issues and how to get a hold of them, maybe that's the next step, to channel some ideas and energy into forms that would put pressure on specific policymakers and link it with specific policy proposals. This shouldn't supplant the protests at all. The goal is to find some way in good faith to link up with the protests and to make the most of the division of labor. It's not to say they're amateurs who should be supplanted by professionals. The protesters bring something to the table, as do the professional advocacy groups.

BC: How might this shape future progressive organizing and the movement itself? Or not?

SR: It may not have a lasting impact. I think a lot depends now on what more mainstream or established progressives, activists, and groups do next, as well as what happens among the citizens who aren't part of protests but are sympathetic. One possible outcome is for established progressive advocacy groups, policymakers, and politicians to engage with the issues and languages raised by the protests.  They could start running with concerns about inequality, unaccountability, and unemployment. Lots of progressives have been doing this to varying degrees already, but the protests could help catalyze a broader shift in discourse and agenda-setting.

Another possible outcome is citizens not involved with the protests engaging with the ideas raised by the protesters and starting to think differently about their own role as political actors or how they should approach the upcoming elections. And if these two mechanisms for impact -- progressive groups and other sympathetic citizens -- link up with one another, then there could be a genuinely powerful shift in the political landscape. The biggest imperative for progressives is to engage seriously with this event and these ideas. That means either experiencing it directly or at least using this as an opportunity for introspection about what progressivism is and what it ought to be.

BC: What would be the best long-term change to come out of this movement?

SR: First: a shift in the broader political conversation. If the protest changes the discourse so that it engages more directly with issues of inequality, political accountability, unemployment, and the economic crisis, then a lot of important policy changes become more possible.

Second: a longer-term focus on building channels for participation and political engagement. If the protests inspire us to think seriously about institutional reforms along with the substantive issues of economic policy, then that might open up another form of lasting change.  Democracy is not just an abstract notion of wanting to participate or be involved; often when we talk about improving democracy we view it as a separate concern independent of other substantive policy issues. But what is really compelling about the protest and what progressives should pick up on is that the substantive issues -- inequality, the economy, post-Dodd-Frank financial regulation -- are intimately bound up in questions of political power and empowerment. And combining the two dimensions makes for a very powerful political argument: that current policies are on the merits flawed, but that the way to change things isn't simply by replacing one set of elites with others. Rather, it's about shifting political power in a way that makes government more accountable and pushes it to respond to the kinds of things people are really worried about.

At its best that's what Obama's 2008 campaign rhetoric was really about. He argued that we have these problems in our country, and they are bound up with the idea that ordinary people need to be empowered and engaged in politics. That's what made his campaign so compelling, but it was a promise as yet unrealized. Democratic empowerment is part and parcel with having a more just economy; the two go together. And that is the best argument progressives can make for social change.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.