Public Protest – An Evolving Norm In American Political Discourse

by George Kennedy on December 27, 2011


In more than 70 cities around the country, Americans are putting their bodies in front of police batons and pepper spray.  They are demanding change and a level playing field with greater access and equity for the middle class.  The confluence of growing income inequality, sustained high unemployment, and dysfunctional government  have galvanized the employed and the unemployed alike into action.  It is noteworthy that large numbers of voters taking to the streets in public protest on the scale we have seen in 2011 is an evolving phenomenon in this country.

Historically, public protests as a form of political expression were uncommon.  The bonus marchers of WW l, the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s, and the Viet Nam protests of the 70s are good examples of mass protests to protest specific grievances.  Each had an impact on the national conversation of its time.

Voters representing at least two generations of law-abiding citizens are increasingly comfortable with public protests – many for the first time.  Their willingness to publicly register their dissatisfaction with what has become the natural order of society, has given life to the Occupy Wall Street Movements in dozens of communities across the U.S.  It is the older voters who also say, “the process, the system is broken and it has to be changed.”

Rule by an oligarchy of corporate, political, and financial elite have combined to transform this country in ways the American voter now feels more compelled to protest publicly.

On January 21, 2010, in the Supreme Court’s decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, money became speech and corporations became people.  Limits on political spending ended as did legislative interest in voter concerns.  Unlimited campaign funds now determine the outcome of elections, influence the drafting of legislation, and shape public policy.  Polls reflect American anger and frustration over this cozy relationship between the 1 percent and their elected officials.  In an interesting twist of converging interests, both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street Movement want the money out of politics.  Both are anti-establishment and they distrust the oligarchy of elites that control the country.  The 1 percent would rue the day should these two unlikely movements combine forces.

The significant change each of us should note going forward into 2012 and beyond is this:  elected officials now regularly ignore polls results and other signs of voter discontent.  This is in spite of a congressional approval rating of 9 percent.  Studies by politically allied think tanks and pollsters suggest there is no political price to pay for their behavior.  Here is why:  Our elected officials look at data regularly on voting patterns in their districts by age, race, income, issue interests and, most importantly, who contributes to their campaign coffers.

Warning signs from constituents that heretofore could induce behavioral changes are now ignored.  Many members of Congress and state and local officials have greater fears:  losing their principal campaign contributors.

The status quo is increasingly untenable.  Elected officials’ greatest concern should be constituent satisfaction and, more parochially, raising enough money to finance their re-election campaign.  This is blunt, but accurate.  The former concern has been eclipsed by the power of the entrenched elite to preserve their low tax rates and friendly regulations.  Tied to the demands of the 1 percent is the lure of massive contributions to ward off primary challengers.

These same officials, then, see as their greatest obligation, to protect the interests of a small population of influential social and business elite, some of whom do not reside in their congressional district or in their home state.  Scott Brown (R-Mass.) is just one of many examples.  Constituents and voters are no more than tools to secure the ascension of Scott and others to, and retention in, public office.  The act of voting is the only part of the relationship between elected officials and their constituents that falls within the framework of democracy.  Reluctantly, many voters have come to accept  civil unrest as their only viable form of protest against a  society in which the poor and middle class become poorer while the rich are becoming richer.  Dialogue is, in reality, marginal.

It is ironic that the community of interests between the 1 percent and the elected officials they purchase creates societal dislocations the 1 percent then want corrected or preserved – whichever serves their interests – at the expense of the 99 percent.  Neither the 1 percent nor the Congress, in this instance, assume responsibility for the outcomes their policies create.  They are, however, adamant that others pay the costs to correct them.  This is a new development for Americans because it violates their sense of citizenship, their values, and the compact they perennially assume exists with their government –  at all levels.  Many Americans are still genuinely surprised when this relationship is not honored.

On the other hand, a large and growing number of American voters are increasingly aware that civil unrest on some level is the only  tactical weapon they can unsheathe in what is becoming a war for their survival.  Civil protest is also about preserving First Amendment rights.  Massive protests are changing the national conversation in this country.  The Occupy Wall Street Movement, their supporters, and the rest of us recently learned that there is a palpable level of discomfort within the political and financial elite regarding the “staying power” of the OWS.  The fear among the super rich is the influence of the OWS Movement could deepen in more communities across the country.  In response to this potential threat, 1 percent allies on Washington’s famed “K Street” have offered to take down the OWS for an $850,000 fee.

What the protesters are also discovering in brutal fashion are the measures their elected officials  are prepared to enforce to protect the interests of the 1 percent.  Police restraint thus far has been minimal.  This realization causes grievous harm to the American psyche: a loss of innocence, if you will.  In the past, measures “appropriate” against minorities and others deemed less significant in the context of larger societal interests, are now being used against them e.g., baton-wielding police in full SWAT gear willing to bathe them in pepper-spray.  Police  also use technology capable of impairing one’s hearing.  There are the frequent mass arrests.  Moreover, personal property is confiscated and destroyed.  Most ominously, recent arrests of journalists and police denial of media access in Zuccotti Park to document oppressive police tactics have been added to the list of police tactics.

A legitimate question is, what level of response can protesters expect going forward?   Arrests and pepper spray are the initial response to peaceful demonstrations.  Should these protests grow in number, frequency, and size, a confrontation with law enforcement is inevitable.  Our own history on dealing with protests is a useful guide.  To be fair, some voters still cling to the belief that American society still works through the ballot box.  But does it?  A blend of protest strategies and tactics would produce more positive outcomes.

If  the ballot box is the appropriate vehicle for change, as our elected officials and Republican presidential candidates continue to suggest, then information, experience, and argument would play a role in negotiations and policy debates between and among those we elect to represent us.  And more so during a prolonged period of national crisis.  Today, these factors are irrelevant when matched against  narrow and dangerous rhetoric, and the intransigence of the anti-government crowd.  These arch conservatives purport to define truth and reality and they brook no opposition.  The same ideologues, frequently against the expressed wishes of their constituents, impede the orderly processes of government.  Moreover, they openly declare their true intentions are to bring down the U.S. economy and to discredit a sitting president if that is what it takes to thwart changes they disapprove.

In a previous article, I wrote, “Hell hath no fury like an aroused and abused citizenry.”  The rising level of protests in this country is perhaps the whirlwind we will reap into the near future.  Some call this the “new normal.”  The greater the economic uncertainty created by the actions of the 1 percent and the push back by disaffected communities, the greater the push back by state and local governments to protect vested interests and the status quo.  Citizens normally risk averse now have less at stake and therefore are more inclined to engage in acts of civil protest to secure a better future.

The underlying message we hear most frequently from protesters parallels that of protesters elsewhere:  “we are here and we are not going anywhere…things have got to change!”  A willingness to engage in public protest could signal a behavioral and strategic shift in how American voters interact with their elected officials on issues germane to their quality of life.  What we have then are two immovable objects on a collision course.  Let’s see who blinks first.

George Kennedy

George Kennedy is a retired senior Foreign Service officer with extensive international experience. He holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon and two graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kennedy was a political advisor to state and federal officials and has authored strategy pieces for Members of Congress and presidential candidates. He serves on the Advisory Board for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

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