An essay I submitted to the NYTimes Op Ed section but never heard back…
A New England Baby Boomer’s Take on Occupy Wall Street
Last weekend when I went to visit my daughters in Brooklyn, we went to Zuccotti Park to show our support for Occupy Wall Street and to sort out the contradictory reports about the intentions of the demonstrators. After reflecting the past week on my visit to the site I reached four conclusions:
1. OWS supporters are disillusioned by both political parties
Earlier this week, a Wall Street Journal survey of the OWS protesters included an open-ended question: What would you like the OWS movement to achieve? The top four responses, which collectively reflect over 60% of those surveyed, were: to influence the Democratic party the way the Tea Party influenced Republicans (35%); to break the two-party duopoly (11%); to engage and mobilize progressives (9%); and to “promote a national conversation” (9%). Taken together, these responses indicate disillusionment with the current choices we face as voters. Despite the stated desire to “influence Democratic party”, the signs and orations at Zuccotti Park were non-partisan. We saw no Obama stickers or Republican counter-demonstrators. Having come of age during the 60s, my wife and I recalled that demonstrators in our time did not support either party. Johnson and Humphrey were as reviled as any Republican. But we also sensed the OWS movement lacks the righteous anger that, ironically, defined the Peace movement. OWS demonstrators are not angry, they are disillusioned. They exude hope and earnestness instead of hostility and cynicism.
2. OWS reveals an emerging generational divide
While some OWS demonstrators were in their 40s or older, most were twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings who are deservedly concerned about their futures. It has dawned on many in that generation that their parents— my generation— have squandered their future by investing unwisely on a personal and public level. We are leaving them with mountains of debt, a crumbling infrastructure, and a dysfunctional government that cannot develop a coherent way plan for recovery. The younger generations are not 99% of our populous or 99% of our electorate, but they are our future. They want to help define where we are headed and they are not at all sure my generation is up to the task.
3. OWS has no desire to create a hierarchy.
The media and the public expect a “list of demands” from the OWS “leaders” because they expect every movement to be hierarchical. OWS is not top-down: it is grassroots in a way that is alien to those unfamiliar with social media like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The OWS governance model is reminiscent of the non-partisan town meetings I recall from my life in Maine in the 70s. At town meeting most issues on the warrant had been discussed at length at earlier public meetings of the selectboard, assuring their passage. The potentially contentious issues had been carefully researched by town staff members, town committees, and selectboard. The town moderator, an honest broker elected by the public, presented these issues in an objective fashion, facilitated a public debate that included an opportunity for amendments to the proposed warrant article. In most cases the amended motion passed with near unanimity. OWS operates in a similar fashion on-the-ground, implicitly asserting a fully participatory method could be put in place on a larger scale through the use of social media.
4. OWS wants democracy to work
The OWS demonstrators do not want to overthrow our government they want to strengthen it. They want to engage the country in an ongoing dialogue about the future of our country. They don’t believe we have only two choices, or that our choices are limited to catchy sound bites, or carefully vetted talking points, or glib spread sheets. And they don’t think 12 people should be responsible for setting budget priorities for the entire country. They are posing tough questions because they know there are no easy answers and because they are open to wholesale change in the way we live and the way we are governed. They are asking: Do we need capitalism that is driven by consumption? Do we need to have cheap imported goods at the cost of employment? Do we need to have high profits for shareholders at the cost of health benefits and solid retirement plans for employees? Is our representative democracy working for those who cannot afford to have lobbyists representing their views? Do we need to have some a set of “positions” to bargain from or can we be open to a spectrum of solutions to our problems?
The selectboard members in Maine in the 70s listened to the citizens in town debate the future over coffee in the local restaurants, at the Post Office, at the general store, and at their public meetings. As I watched the teach-ins, the general assemblies, and ongoing debates at Zuccotti Park, I came away with the sense that OWS wants to have a government that operates the same way. I hope our legislators are listening with open minds the same way the selectboard listened in Maine.