Protests make people uncomfortable. That's why protests are organized. Waking a dormant public or a lazy political infrastructure with an uncomfortably forced focus is their purpose.
The Tea Party did a magnificent job and now the Occupy Wall Street protests are percolating equally important activity. Both are non-violent and fueled by social media. Both make their targets uncomfortable. Both animate each other with their polar enthusiasms.
The protests raise the specter of the demise of the American Dream. But in spite of dire predictions it turns out that the Dream lives. However, efforts by candidates (and causes and corporate advertisers) to "co-brand" themselves with the Dream are doomed to fail.
The American Dream is an ingrained idea, not a partisan ideology nor a corporate objective. The important thing about the Dream, based on our national survey work at the Center for the Study of the American Dream, is that a strong majority of American adults still believe in the Dream (72%), but to an astonishing degree they have lost confidence in the institutions traditionally seen as Dream guardians. 82% are disgusted with "all politics". 79% have lost trust in "big business"; 78% distrust "government" and 72% distrust the traditional media.
The idea that a political or corporate initiative can be launched in the context of the Dream is doomed from the start because of the intense distrust of the launching institutions.
Americans feel they are on their own but they haven't lost the Dream. They have confidence in themselves, their families and their personal networks. Institutional appeals based on the Dream are transparently ineffective "me too-isms." The implicit message to traditional authority is that "we don't believe you... we don't trust you..." but most damaging, " WE DON'T NEED YOU."
These protests are NOT political proxies for political parties. The political cognoscenti, as a matter of arrogant habit, require anything like these protests to be fitted into the molds their own experience has verified. They need to force the square pegs of public resistance into the round holes of their personal worldview.
Lately everything is squeezed through a political colander forcing comfortably defined political pasta while throwing out the boiling water that made the pasta palatable in the first place. But any good cook knows that you don't throw away the boiled and flavorful pasta water but keep it to blend into the sauce. So it is with the protests. The trick for institutions is to figure out how to fit into the protests rather than the other way around.
While the Tea Party is heavily Republican, it's also true that they are not willing tools of the Republican Party. They maintain a difficult-to-control distance. They exhaust the Party establishment even as they nervously inspire it.
The Wall Street protest confuses the Democrats too. Both offer to their remotely connected political associations an uneasy and undependable alliance. Leverage for the Parties is non-existent. These protesters owe nothing to the Parties which failed or betrayed them. The parties have nothing to offer them. You can't scare them. You can't buy them off.
The Dream belongs to Americans, not to the institutions, candidates or corporate advertisers who try to co-opt it.
The breathless rush to belittle the protests is typical of those being protested against. A unified criticism of the Wall Street Occupiers is that "they have no leader and no agenda." It is a protest that emerged, sui generis, from the earthen public, leaderless and fertilized by anger, not by a specific agenda. That's the way truly bottom up efforts begin.
The anti-Vietnam war protest movement had leaders and a very specific goal. This protest was also not welcomed, despite conforming to the requirements of today's protest bashers. These complaints are a rouse.
There is no Wall Street protest or Tea Party leader. The protests are against institutional authority. Leaders are institutional. There was no leader in the Egyptian protests which led to the ouster of Mubarak. There was no leader in Libya in the movement leading to the ousting of Kaddafi.
Swarm intelligence is on the rise through unprecedented use of social media and the beehive of public opinion knows exactly what it doesn't want -- exactly what it does want will be determined. Unity among protesters is fueled by broad dismissals by the "powers of that be" and protesters are texting and tweeting their brains out, driving a stake through the heart of our ennui. Its instantaneousness and its reach is vast.
Think of Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation. Luther didn't really post the 93 Theses on the Wittenberg cathedral door. He respectfully submitted the work to the Archbishop who forwarded the toxic package to Rome. There was no response -- for three years! Nonetheless, because of the new social media of the 16th century -- the printing press -- the 93 Theses were translated, printed and circulated throughout Germany within two weeks and throughout Europe in two months. The Pope downplayed it and tried the leverage of excommunication failing to understand the heart of the matter and the powerlessness of his institutional influence. Luther's Reformation still abides nearly 500 years later.
What was the initial agenda of the U.S civil rights protests? Justice and equality initially lacked specificity but not power. The agenda took time to percolate through an ascending movement. What initially was the specific agenda of the feminist movement? What is the agenda of those calling to "take our country back" uttered from both the left and from the right. "Take our country back?" What does that mean?
The Wall Street Occupiers' agenda will evolve or die. In the meantime, protest or not, Americans still believe America promises a fair chance. A shot, not in the dark of a destiny over which they have no control, but in world where opportunity for betterment tomorrow is in their own hands, no matter what the institutions and their mouthpieces say today.