Republic: Occupy Wall Street and the Public Thing

The Occupy Wall Street protest has the opportunity to hurt or renew democracy, depending on whether the protesters choose to engage it.

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The Occupy Wall Street protests have gathered a surprising amount of momentum for a group not connected to a specific piece of legislation. Even without a political banner to unite under, though (like the Tea Party against the Affordable Care Act, or against the president), the movement’s success will depend primarily on its political engagement.

It is well known that Alexis de Tocqueville outlined American political participation as one of the foundations of “Democracy in America.” The fact that an opinion, a belief, an indignation could not only be expressed, but expressed politically and officially – this became a core in the monument of American identity. It was the antidote to the European problems of poverty, in which voiceless millions were discarded and ignored, left to find their own voice apart from the official society. John Adams noted that the problem of poverty was not so much hunger, as being ignored by society. The former pain will wrench the stomach, but the latter will drain the soul.

So it is always with a little pride that we Americans must accept loud voices we disagree with. Participation in the public thing makes us better people, we believe. This is where today’s column by Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post sheds needed light on the Occupy protests around the world:

In New York, marchers chanted, “This is what democracy looks like,” but actually, this isn’t what democracy looks like. This is what freedom of speech looks like. Democracy looks a lot more boring. Democracy requires institutions, elections, political parties, rules, laws, a judiciary and many unglamorous, time-consuming activities, none of which are nearly as much fun as camping out in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral or chanting slogans on the Rue Saint-Martin in Paris.

Democracy, Applebaum writes, is based on the rule of law among people who believe themselves to be a distinct nation. A protest that engages democracy cannot simply enjoy like-minded echo movements on other continents – it must communicate with political opponents in its own particular place, in its own particular institutions.

“Global” activists, if they are not careful, will accelerate that decline. Protesters in London shout,“We need to have a process!” Well, they already have a process: It’s called the British political system. And if they don’t figure out how to use it, they’ll simply weaken it further.

Of course, Occupy Wall Street need not be unsuccessful. It need not even be political, necessarily. But if it is to perpetuate and renew democracy in this place, they will have to recognize that their closest brethren are not at Occupy Berlin, but are working daily in the New York buildings that are the object of the present animus.

The edifice of American identity, the participation in the American public thing, is certainly warped and convoluted these days. There is no question that change must come from the outside and force its way in. As a reminder to this truth, this past weekend saw the dedication of the national Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC. As President Obama pointed out for the occasion, the lasting King legacy is about how a marginalized group was led into a public voice – and, in our best moments, and enduring place in the public thing.

Applebaum presciently identified the predecessor of Occupy Wall Street as the anti-globalization protests. To Applebaum, this is not an insult – globalization, for all its benefits, has created problems for the national identity on which our democracy is based. However, it should be a sad reminder that the resort of anti-globalization protests was toward a further degradation of the public participation and definition we need for our democratic life.

On a deeper level than the political positions that Occupy Wall Street may take up, I hope that it, too, can help renew the American public thing.

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