Why The Wall Street Protests (or any other) Just Don't Matter in America

Protests are absolutely pointless in America. In fact, they may be counterproductive.

1. The theory behind the modern mass movement is that, basically, it wins by its size. In a democracy, in theory, this should win. But no mass movement in a very long time has done anything to change anything without the use of television or other media, and this is more or less because in a country this size, this diverse, the millions of people required to do anything are virtually impossible to assemble without the use of media. And even then, you aren’t really assembling a mass at all. You are trying to get voters to vote a certain way.

In fact, this is a good thing. This means the vast majority of people do not actually feel, regardless of what they say, that the system is really broken. If they did not feel this way, these movements would be bigger because fewer people would believe their grievances could be redressed through the system, or, by voting.

2. The two parties are basically each a food with a complex flavor that the electorate knows well. Historical events call us to recall these flavors a certain way. And depending on whether what’s on people’s minds at the time, they may lean toward one flavor or another. But the parties know they have to be able to build a winning coalition, so they can only keep a combination of flavors that’s likely to win, very rarely completely lose that flavor (or issue) to the other side. A great confluence of events, more or less luck, can heavily favor one or the other. This changes over time, but it’s part of how our two-party system works.

Right now, a winning electoral coalition can be assembled out of an awful lot of different pieces, but there are only two alternatives, and I don’t think they are the only two.

Democrats have limited themselves over the years by making a few key decisions: (1) ceasing to be the labor party (having a labor wing, but also a corporate one); (2) emphasizing social progress as a key domestic and national theme over economic issues; (3) a further alienation from labor by the transition of business interests from alignment with protectionism to alignment with free trade; and, (4) a disconnect from non-elites through a preference for technocratic government over ideal-driven government, including in defense policy.

This is why there is no populist moment against Wall Street.

The voters don’t know the flavor of Democrats on the economy because they lost their strong identification as the labor party, they think Democrats care more about identity politics more than preserving the middle class partially as a result of that being true, partially as a result of no one understanding how they help John Q. Public if they’re not for the unions and protectionism or for killing terrorists all the time and so on. Stipulating to exhaust monetary policy and then provide a fiscal stimulus means jack shit to most people. Even people who understand why that should, in theory, help the economy have really no goddamn idea what it really means will happen to them in six months or a year.

3. So even if you could assemble a giant mass movement against Wall Street, what would it coalesce around? The President? The Republicans? Some bizzaro-Tea Party faction of Congressional Democrats? There’s just no grain of sand in that oyster. No pearl will come out of it.

But you can’t assemble a mass movement by street protests. The Tea Party was not a spontaneous group of people yelling on TV or at town halls. It was a well coordinated, well funded operation from the start. It was able to create a critical mass of voters through media, not through any direct mass movement. And it won the 2010 election.

What would a mass movement in America look like? Maybe something like the civil rights movement in the 1960s in the south. For the most part, in the rest of the country, the civil rights movement came about through TV. There are many places that the civil rights movement did not touch except through broadcast.

For better or worse, we live through media in this country in 2011. And that requires messaging (which requires ideals) way more than it requires a feeling of membership in a large group or the ability to show up.

So unless occupying Wall Street is likely either to excite a revolutionary mass movement, it has to become part of the formula for a winning electoral coalition. I just don’t believe that people who by definition believe the system is not worthy of a revolution, and so will express themselves politically by voting, are moved by a mere gathering at all. If the medium is the message, and an inchoate mass of people foaming at the mouth is your medium. your message is an inchoate mass too.