Democracy & Protests, Movements & Tipping Points

This is something that concerns me because it cuts to the heart of democracy.

I’m beginning to wonder whether the right to assemble is effectively dead in the US. No one who is a wage slave (which is the overwhelming majority of the population) can afford to have an arrest record, even a misdemeanor, in this age of short job tenures and rising use of background checks.

Now at least in New York (and I hope readers in other cities will chime in) the right to assemble seems to be pretty much a dead letter. I was in Sydney during the global protests against the Iraq War, and I was told that the New York demonstrations (which were already hindered by typically lousy winter weather) were pretty much blocked by the police. Protestors were tying to gather at the UN, and the cops put up a cordon at Second Avenue. The result was the turnout was far lower than the number who tried to show their opposition and were stopped.

The latest New York City protest is OccupyWallStreet. Even though its turnout last week fell well short of hopes (the estimates from the group were that 2000 participated; the New York Times suggests numbers more like “hundreds” but the photos from the 17th make figures larger figures seem plausible), making it a nuisance level demonstration rather than a major statement, the powers that be seem to be trying a bit too hard to prevent it from getting traction.

The organizers were using Twitter to promote participation and visibility. And so Twitter intervened. From AmpedStatus:

On at least two occasions, Saturday September 17th and again on Thursday night, Twitter blocked #OccupyWallStreet from being featured as a top trending topic on their homepage. On both occasions, #OccupyWallStreet tweets were coming in more frequently than other top trending topics that they were featuring on their homepage.

This is blatant political censorship on the part of a company that has recently received a $400 million investment from JP Morgan Chase.

The simplest and most basic element of democracy is protest, i.e., the right to assemble and the right to free speech. It’s the lifeblood of a free society. And, because of this, it has always been the main target of those in power.

This is such a dangerous thing because it seems many Americans don’t understand the value of protest, don’t even understand what democracy is. Conservatives, in particular, see democracy as mobocracy and so protests are nothing but mindless mobs (although, they make exceptions for their own protests such as the Tea Party). If we don’t protect democracy, democracy can’t protect us.

I was discussing the issue of unions with some conservatives.

Unions are one of the most basic expressions of the right to assemble. The unemployed and the working class and the 99% in general don’t have the money or political clout to compete as individuals with the wealthy elite as individuals. Plus, the wealthy elite have lobbyists, think tanks, front groups, astroturf, etc. Most of the big money donations are probably done without transparency. Even SuperPACs which are supposed to be transparent have a loophole that allows anonymous donations. Karl Rove’s well-funded SuperPAC is mostly funded by 3 anonymous sources. Even unions can’t compete with that. Plus, there is the problem of average union members trying to compete their unions under grassroots control. Millionaires and Billionaires don’t need to worry about grassroots. They can buy the appearance of ‘grassroots’ if they so desire.

The lower class are at a severe disadvantage. If you have little money, your only power is grassroots solidarity and your only voice is protest. This is where strikes come in, the practice that has created more rights and protections for workers than any other practice in US history. But various things disempowered unions earlier last century.

Using anti-communist rhetoric, the rich and powerful turned average Americans against unions and against the working class in general. No one wanted to be working class any more. Politicians and pundits began preaching about protecting the middle class. But who were they supposed to be protecting them from? The rich who were outsourcing their jobs and stagnating their wages? Of course not. The middle class apparently was being protected from the dangerous working class. This is ironic considering most of these so-called “middle class” people were in reality working class. With all of this, the neocons and social conservatives were able to transform the war on poverty into a war against the poor.

A good example of how unions lost power is in Anderson, Indiana. The strikes in Anderson were very tense and the population was divided. Eventually, GM took their business out of town and the union got blamed. That is the power of big business. They can move their factories all around the world. They can even move their factories to countries that have no worker protection at all. Workers don’t have that kind of freedom. Even to this day, former GM workers are being punished by big business. One factory that located in the area refused to hire former GM workers. Another factory nearby refused to hire any workers from Anderson.

As the middle class shrinks and good jobs become scarce, workers have even less power. People have to pay the bills and feed their families. Without jobs, workers join the unemployed and eventually join the homeless. Strike-breaking and union-busting has become very successful. It’s risky for workers to put their necks out when they are at such a disadvantage. The average worker has no easy way to organize and be heard. The mainstream media is owned by the same corporate conglomerates that own the factories. Workers these days can’t win no matter what they try.

Nonetheless, people can only be pushed so far. Even the anti-union and anti-poor rhetoric starts to be dissatisfying to many Americans when they experience an economy ruled by big business. As the middle class shrinks, more Americans find themselves in the same lot with the working class and the poor. It’s hard to scapegoat a group of people when you have become a part of that scapegoated group.

This is where the 99ers came in. They spoke the inconvenient truth that even the Tea Party didn’t want to face. Then there were also the protesters, mostly left-wingers, who earlier protested Wall Street. Both of these groups were largely ignored or only given brief mention. But now the 99% movement has created a movement that seems to be taken hold with their Occupy Wall Street protest. It also seems the 99ers and the unions are beginning to join the 99% movement which is forming it into genuine grassroots populism. These aren’t just liberal college students with too much time on their hands. These protests are filled with the working poor and the unemployed, and it’s also filled with the former middle class who have lost jobs and houses. Basically, the 99% is all of these people, i.e., all the people besides the 1% of wealthy elite who control this country and dominate the economy.

After so many decades, average Americans seem to be waking from their slumber. I suppose this is how the Populist Era began. Most of those in the Populist movement were ordinary Americans. Before the economic problems following the Civil War, average Americans believed in the American Dream and the ideal of the free market. But the rhetoric of politicians stopped being convincing. Rhetoric can’t feed your family or pay your bills. No one saw the Populist movement coming, not even those involved. One particpant observed that it was like a wildfire that lit the whole country all at once. We seem to be on the verge of such a change right now. The polling and demographics have been pointing toward change for a long time, but maybe the tipping point is finally getting near.

We’ll see…


Strange Power Tricks

Here are two videos that I appreciated. I have no commentary to add… just wanted to share. The first is partly a response to the second.

And here are a couple of comments that I liked from the comments section of the second video:


changing the law to make your opponents unelectable is how democracy turns to dictatorship…

To quote a Rise Against song: “If we’re the flagship of hope and prosperity, we’re taking on water and about to fucking sink”


Only five states do not have collective bargaining for educators and have deemed it illegal. Those states and their ranking on ACT/SAT scores are as follows:

South Carolina -50th

North Carolina -49th

Georgia -48th

Texas -47th,

Virginia -44th.

Wisconsin is ranked #2 in the nation.

Republican s do not want an educated electorate .

Tea Parties, Smart Mobs, and Generations

Here is a response I gave to someone I know who is fairly conservative.  He feels critical of both the Democratic and Republican parties, and in that I agree with him.
As for the tax protests, I hope you don’t mind my typical long response.  I heard about them, but my sources may be a bit biased: The Colbert Report and The Daily Show.  They showed footage of it being heavily promoted by the Fox channel and attended by media stars.  But your point still stands.  Most of the organization probably was done by local people (such as the protest you attended).  And I’m sure the internet played a major role.
I don’t know what can and can’t be considered a smart mob.  I’d guess that most protests are (and have been) locally organized, even nation-wide protests.  Technology has made this easier.  I’d guess that almost all of the protests in the last decade or so have been largely based upon personal media connectivity.  Of course, those in power or seeking power would like to co-opt these social mechanisms.  Obama demonstrated how these new social forces can be contained within and guided by the mainstream political process.  Or, to look at it the other way around, maybe these new social forces have co-opted mainstream political processes… the beginnings of mobocracy?  As another example, you should see what Colbert can accomplish with a simple remark to his audience.  He managed, through a vote that NASA held, to get a piece of the space station named after him.
I think what was new with the recent tax protests is that it was a nation-wide smart mob that seemed to have been created by conservatives (true conservatives, you might say, not limited to any political party).  Interestingly, the Fox network was extremely critical of protests during the Bush administration (saying such things as if the protesters don’t like America, then they should leave), but now these same people feel that their voices aren’t as easily heard anymore (and now are supporting these protesters that happen to agree with them).  An interesting thing I’ve noticed is that some of the previous critics of the Democratic party have slowly become increasingly more critical of the Republican party as well.
Ever since the ’60s, protesting has been mostly limited to liberals and extremists (or at least that is how it’s often been presented in the media).  This trend is finally shifting (and the media along with it).  I’ve heard the organizing and financing that countered the gay marriage bill in California was largely supported by Mormons.  And now these tea party protests.  It’s interesting that it seems to have taken a community organizing Democratic president to create a social climate that inspires conservatives towards community organized protesting.  Or maybe civic-mindedness is just in the air.
The smart mob phenomena is interesting.  I just read an article about Twitter (“Let Them Eat Tweets” by Virginia Heffernan, The New York Times).  In the article, the science fiction writer Bruce Sterling said that “Poor folk love their cellphones!”  The basic idea meaning that those without power and wealth strive for a sense of value through connections and I would add strive to have their voices heard through a collective identity.  This applies to conservatives in two ways.  Many conservatives like yourself feel that the Republican party doesn’t fully represent them and they certainly don’t feel represented by the now in power Democratic party.  So, if you’re a concerned conservative who isn’t as influential (because of a lack of representation… or lack of power and wealth) as you’d like to be, then you’re forced to find new avenues of political action.
I was just thinking about the third party issue.  You might be onto something there.  The traditional two party system has been defined by and hence controlled by traditional media.  With new social dynamics in personal media, this shifts the power and structure of politics.  Prior to discussion boards, blogs, Twitter, and Youtube, the average person had no way to have their voice heard across the nation and across the world.  However, diverse people from diverse places can now organize (easily, quickly and inexpensively).  A party that actually represents the average person might even arise out of all of this.
The news industry is being challenged by the internet.  I wonder if this is a sign of shifting socio-political power and influence.  Those who controlled power in the past suddenly realize the game is more complex now.  Monopolies aren’t as easy to maintain as they used to be.  Even so, I wonder whether the power-mongerers will eventually find a way to control and muzzle the new media.  The media conglomerates were the emblem of the modern industrial age (and military-industrial complex?).  Are we entering a new era?  Will there be a new centralizing force of power or is centralized power no longer as viable as it once was?  Political monopolies (e.g., monarchies) lost much of their power in the past few centuries.  What similar historical change might lead industrial monopolies (e.g., international mega-corporations) to a similar demise?  And what kind of democracy might form out of it?
I’m also reminded of the protests and patriotism after 9-11 which crossed political lines.  There was a bi-partisan attitude for a while after the terrorist attack.  The families of the twin towers’ victims often weren’t aligning themselves with any party but simply wanted the government to take action.  Although the pro-peace protests were largely supported by liberals (and libertarians), the elected Democratic officials supported the war for the most part.  I spent some time with those involved in the peace protests.  There were people camped out for months.  It was a national protest organized by local citizens that was way more extensive than the tea party protests.  And the internet (before Twitter) was used for much of the organizing.  All these years later, I still receive e-mails from people on the peace camp email list.
The problem with protests is that they often don’t do anything more than gain public attention.  Still, in doing that, I suspect they have influence in the long run.  But in the immediate they can be dissatisfying.  I wonder how often protests actually lead to political change.  I suspect that change only ever comes when those in power feel threatened (either by rioting or by being voted out of power).  I’ve always been impressed by a statement made by Martin Luther King Jr.  He said that the only reason white people in power listened to him was because there was an angry young black man behind him with a molotov cocktail.  Basically, he was saying that the status quo only changes when those in power feel they have no other choice.  Or else, going by Kuhn’s model, you just wait for the older generation to die off which I’m assuming isn’t your personal agenda.
There is a big difference, though, between protests now and those of a half century ago.  The media is no longer as monolithic despite the government increasing its ability to control its propagandistic message more tightly.  I’d say the reason for this is that personal media has broken down the wall between producers and consumers of media.  It is now less clear who is an authority to be trusted.  Most present tv reporters aren’t any more knowledgeable than the average intelligent person because many reporters no longer research their own material.  Many reporters are just pretty faces, just talking heads.  Reporters are more like average people now and average people are now better informed (from multiple sources).  Any person who is persuasive, insightful and/or well-informed can gain attention and a following on the internet. 
More importantly, most of the dispersion of media info is non-centralized meaning no one is controlling it other than the social dynamics of the mob.  And the news industry doesn’t, for the time being, know how to get the genie back into the bottle.  But technological models are being developed to increase centralized control for profit and power.  As I’ve mentioned before, one of the largest (if not the largest) internet company in the world (i.e., Google) has been helping the Chinese government to oppress its own people, and some see evidence that internet providers and browsers are filtering information by how they rank subjects.
In the ’60s, the government had agents infiltrate protest organizations and they even actively influenced the protest activities such as encouraging illegal activities (this technique was called COINTELPRO).  Surely there are now agents in the tea party protests and all over the internet.  Is COINTELPRO still being used?  It would seem that it was proven in court to still have been used as late as the ’90s (see Bari vs FBI).  I’ve heard the media follows blogs and Twitter in order to detect emerging news topics.  I don’t doubt that the government does the same in order to detect social change such as determining when and where smart mobs are developing.  On a different note, some media and political watchdogs have observed false “grassroots” organizations created as fronts by corporations in order to manipulate their public image or misdirect attention.  The war of media relations and propaganda is ongoing but the average person doesn’t notice because they’re watching mainstream media which is controlled by vested interests.
Will smart mobs defy those seeking to maintain control?  It’s particularly interesting to consider in terms of generational shifts.  The civic-mindedness in the air may be related to the civic-minded Millennial generation coming into power through their massive numbers.  It’s partly because of them that Obama won.  I just watched, from a 2008 presentation, Hais and Winograd speak on C-SPAN  about their book Millennial Makeover.  The authors see a political shift occurring that is directly related to the shift in media.  One of the authors said that the Republican party can be a part of this change, but they can only do so by changing their support for laissez-faire politics (and this was said before the economic downturn). 
The Millennials are the force that will outnumber even the Boomers by the 2012 election.  This upcoming political force tends towards more liberal views in terms of civil rights (because they grew up with liberal media such as Barney), but also they tend towards more groupthink (the last Civic generation being GIs who held power during the ’50s).  The Boomers were Idealists which is the generational type that is prone to divisiveness and polarized extremism (which has ruled politics for the last several decades).  The Civic generation tends towards unification and cooperation.  The old divisive political tactics won’t work for much longer (not until the next Idealistic generation that is). 
If a third party is to be created, this is the time for such a possibility.  But I don’t know if you’ll like it. 
The last Civic generation grew up during the depression and WWII.  This present Civic generation is growing up during the War on Terror and the present economic slump.  If the pattern holds, we’ll have a new high period such as happened in the ’50s.  Strauss and Howe describe the ’50s as having a prospering middle class and collectivist infrastructure.  It was the peaceful glory days of American might and power that Boomers knew as children.  However, it wasn’t a time that is remembered for its spiritual depth and cultural richness.  It was an upbeat and externally focused period.  The ideal of social responsibility was central, but so was the attitude of following the Jones’s.  Also, it wasn’t a time of libertarian values such as small government.  Nor for traditional moral values because traditional community identity waned (along with close connections with extended family) as urbanization increased and because materialism became rampant as society’s enthrallment with technological wonders increased.  However, because of all the social destabilization, there was new emphasis on the nuclear family as being the saving grace and bedrock of society.
From my perspective, much of the GI generation seems to correlate with what is going on with Millennials.  But, as always, time will tell.
Another interesting factor came up in the C-SPAN video from a question by someone in the crowd.  The person asked about the reliability of information on the web.  One of the authors said that this was mostly an issue for older folks.  Millennials are naturally suspicious of all info and always look for the spin.  That might be something that distinguishes Millennials from the GIs.  In the ’50s people trusted the media with little question because reporters were greatly respected. 
The potential failing of the Millennials is that they trust their peers too much.  Groupthink was a major force in the ’50s, but groupthink could be magnified to detrimental levels in the present world of personal media echo chambers.  The only thing that can counter this is the varied sources of info that is now available.