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What Democracy Looks Like

November 16th, 2011 · 33 Comments

Almost everything about the execution of yesterday’s eviction of protesters from Zuccotti Park was an outrage, from the interference with reporters seeking to cover the event, to the needless destruction of protesters’ property, to Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s stunningly lawless disregard for a court order restraining the city. But on the underlying question of whether the city must allow any group to set up a tent city in public space indefinitely, I think Doug Mataconis gets it right: There’s no First Amendment right to camp out in a park, and no reason to think that there’s anything constitutionally offensive about a content-neutral rule designed to ensure that public parks can continue to be used as, well, parks. People, of course, have every right to speak their mind in public (or, in this instance, quasi-public) space. But laying down dozens of tents and announcing that you and your friends intend to live there indefinitely always sounded suspiciously like an attempt to effectively privatize that public space.

I’ve always had a similar reaction to that hoary protest chant: “Whose Streets? Our Streets! Whose Park? Our Park!” Here we’re supposed to understand that “our” means “the people” as a whole. But protesters—even when they call themselves “The 99%”—comprise a pretty minuscule fraction of a percent of the population of a city the size of New York.  In practice, “our” means “this particular group of people,” even if they aspire to represent a much larger group. We don’t put expressive rights to a vote, fortunately, but it does seem like a whole bunch of democratically elected city officials are under the impression that their constituents want their parks to remain usable for traditionally park-ish purposes. Maybe they’re wrong, of course, or maybe that’s a pretext offered to squelch a threat to their corporate paymasters. But it always seems presumptuous when soi-disant populist movements, left and right, declare that “we the people” want this or that.

For most of human history, we’ve spent our whole lives in social clusters of a few hundred people—we’re basically hardwired for groups of that size. That makes it easy to look at a throng of a few thousand out at a rally and tell yourself, as another familiar chant has it: “This is what democracy looks like.” 

Except, of course, it isn’t really. Or at any rate, it’s only a tiny part of what democracy looks like. 

A small group of people self-selected for their commitment to some set of shared goals and values may be able to pick a set of slogans to chant in unison, or resolve their limited disagreements by consensus process.  But real democracy in a pluralist society involves deep and often ineradicable disagreement—and not just on the optimal uses of public parks and other commons. It’s true, of course, that concentrated and wealthy interests routinely capture the apparatus of government, and use it to serve ends inimical to the general good. But a frame that sets up an opposition between “the 99%” and “the 1%” —or, if you prefer, between “Washington/media elites” and “Real America”—suggests a vain hope that profound political differences are, at least in some spheres, an illusion manufactured by some small minority.

Against that background, it’s instructive that so many OWS organizers have cited Tahrir Square as an inspiration. In much of the Arab world, after all, the problem isn’t so much resolving democratic disagreement as getting to the point where there are regular, free elections whose results are respected. However broken our system might be, we’ve at least gotten that far. In that context, though, once protest has successfully drawn public attention to an issue, it seems like the next step should be to get on with the messy and prosaic business of debating and deliberating on concrete reforms with those who have different views. If the people all (or nearly all) want the same thing, but an oppressive authority refuses to act on that shared desire, debate and deliberation are beside the point: There’s nothing to do but throw your bodies on the gears until the rulers have no choice but to comply.  My sense is that many of the OWS folks think that’s more or less the situation we are in. Spend a few weeks in a self-selected community, and perhaps it becomes possible to believe that 99% of us really are all on the same page—or at least, would be if we weren’t brainwashed by the 1%. This has long been a major strain in conservative thinking: Everyone would see that our views are just simple common sense—obviously correct!—if not for a liberal media cabal systematically lying to people all day. Dark as this sounds, it’s utopian in one sense: It implies we’d all agree but for the malign influence of this or that small but powerful group.

I’m neither cynical enough to believe that our deeply flawed democracy is a complete sham, nor optimistic enough to hope the appearance of fundamental political conflict is a stage production masking an underlying harmony. But if disagreement is real—if large numbers of my fellow citizens sincerely hold very different views about what policy is best—then protest, however vital as a consciousness raising tool,  can only be a preparation for the more humdrum enterprise of convincing your neighbors with sustained arguments (or being convinced yourself), electing candidates, and all the rest. To imagine protest not as prologue to politics, but as a substitute for it, suggests a denial of the reality of pluralism, and an unwillingness to find out what democracy actually looks like.

Tags: Sociology


       

 

33 responses so far ↓

  • 1 One and Four » Blog Archive » Democracy and OWS // Nov 16, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    […] So I came across this article and I like it. You should check it out. […]

  • 2 What Democracy Looks Like | - Dave Budge .com // Nov 16, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    […] November 16, 2011 Thoughtful libertarians and former Reason Magazine contributor Julian Sanchez has a great piece on Occupy Wall Street and its ilk on democracy. Here are some snips: For most of human history, we’ve spent our whole lives in […]

  • 3 Jameson Quinn // Nov 17, 2011 at 10:22 am

    True democracy may look more ideologically diverse, or more broadly representative, or just more massive, than a given group of protestors. But it also looks a lot more engaged than just going to vote once every year or two. That’s what I, at least, mean when I join that chant.

  • 4 Sean Lai // Nov 17, 2011 at 10:34 am

    Felix,

    You started out with some accurate (though a somewhat banal) points – that protestors are only a small slice of all people, that protests and/or social movements claiming to speak for “the people” are obviously engaged in a fiction – and then move in a direction that seems to suggest an almost willful misunderstanding of the phrase under discussion (“this is what democracy looks like”).

    Yes, there are many different people with different ideas about What Is To Be Done at the Occupy protests, but there’s a pretty clear anarchist/socialist strain, which posits that the representative democracy you’ve described is in fact a kind of a sham – that it may not involve literally rigged elections, but that elected officials, important unelected members of government, and powerful private sector actors are all members of a similar class and, while divided on some issues, broadly act to defend their interests against the many. The solution, these radicals posit, is to fundamentally alter the system in some way to break the hold of this power elite.

    I don’t totally agree with this, I think it is both simplistic in its description of power and naive in its attempt to craft a new order whole cloth on the rubble of the old, but this is clearly what is meant when people refer to the direct democracy of the streets as “real democracy” and the democracy of the campaign and the election as fake. Simply reiterating the old Weberian chestnut about boring holes into planks doesn’t speak to the assertions these protestors are making.

  • 5 TGGP // Nov 17, 2011 at 11:42 am

    His name is Julian, not Felix.

    I was going to link to Patrick Deneen’s blog on a more engaged notion of democracy, but unfortunately he’s restricted it to invited readers only.

  • 6 Sean Lai // Nov 17, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    Whoa sorry, reading too many blogs at once! My apologies.

  • 7 mfarmer // Nov 17, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    “Everyone would see that our views are just simple common sense—obviously correct!—if not for a liberal media cabal systematically lying to people all day.”

    I think this is a simplistic claim, and if bugs me when someone as intelligent as you makes such a claim. I’m not conservative, but most conservatives I know criticize media bias because it gives an unfair advantage to the modern “liberal” worldview and the Democrat Party, not that they think the world would automatically default to the conservative point of view if not for the bias. Anyone who cares about media integrity should be concerned with what passes for journalism and reporting.

  • 8 Josh King // Nov 17, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    It’s an excellent point – anyone sympathetic to the view of OWS should be exceedingly frustrated that the movement has been more concerned with defending and perpetuating a hippie campout than actually doing the work of effectuating democratic change.

  • 9 Jamie // Nov 17, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    mfarmer, Julian is not making that claim. He is just mentioning it as an example. He is not endorsing it.
    I think if you read the paragraph again you will see this.

  • 10 Mackenzie // Nov 17, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    mfarmer:
    I’m generally confused by claims that the media has a liberal bias and also with attempts to link this to the Democratic Party. The latter is because the Democratic Party isn’t liberal to start with. If I’m being charitable I call them centrist wimps, but really they fall pretty neatly in line with Britain’s Conservative Party. The former is because, as recently shown by some Harvard students, the media does a very good job of acquiescing to Republican Party rhetoric. The example in that case was the way the media dropped 100 years of tradition of calling waterboarding “torture” as soon as Bush revealed that the US had employed it.

  • 11 Pat Jasper // Nov 17, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    I got news for you: it IS a complete sham…

  • 12 Mike Kirby // Nov 17, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    My two cents: some minds are not able to comprehend the democratization of power and communication that has already occurred, that these protests are merely the end result, not the primary part, of.

    Maybe a better slogan would be “this is what democratization looks like”. But that’d probably sail over most people’s heads just as well.

    You either can wrap your mind around the big changes in the last few years, or you can’t. Technology has radically altered some subtle tectonics of our social structure since just 5 years ago. These protests are the first visible expression of a fundamental shift that has already occurred. To those who are still organizing their worldview through the lens of societal structures of 10 or more years ago, this all surely looks like less than it is.

    I think this writer just doesn’t Get It.

  • 13 MFarmer // Nov 18, 2011 at 12:37 am

    Mackenzie,

    Well, yes, if we’re talking about the meaning of liberal, I agree, but media, in general, lean toward the unliberal, wimpy centrist worldview of the Democrat Party.

  • 14 Julian Sanchez // Nov 18, 2011 at 3:24 am

    Any appearance of my not Getting It is only a symptom of inferior brains to grasp the still more profound Truth I have Gotten, to which I will refer here only vaguely in the interest of not blowing all your puny minds. The Great and Powerful Oz has spoken!

  • 15 Time to participate in democracy « My web-log // Nov 18, 2011 at 4:47 am

    […] news reports about the dark side of Occupation…” Surely it’s partly that. But Julian Sanchez lucidly articulates what I think many Americans find bothersome about OWS, even if they share its concerns: Almost […]

  • 16 Mike // Nov 18, 2011 at 10:30 am

    I always find one thing interesting about these types of protests… they are simultaneously saying that the current system of democracy is so corrupt that the people’s votes don’t matter, but that the way to fix this is… to convince politicians to to listen to them, so that they will receive their votes?

    What mechanism do they plan to use to alter this “fundamentally broken” power structure? If the elections are not legitimate, how do they plan to get people in power who are sympathetic to them, short of armed rebellion?

  • 17 Emily // Nov 18, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    I don’t disagree with you on the 1st Amendment issues and “Whose streets” chants.

    But the 99%/1% rhetoric is not in the least about political agreement. Nor is it really about dividing particular groups of people into “elite” vs. “real.” It’s about how those “concentrated and wealthy interests routinely captur[ing] the apparatus of government” have become so entrenched, and have so impeded the ability to work out profound differences productively (not to mention crashed the economy), that yes, some bodies might need to go on some gears.

  • 18 Jeremy // Nov 18, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    What I honestly Do Not Get are people who continue to say things like “the Democrats aren’t liberal, they’re centrist” or “Obama isn’t liberal, he’s right-wing” or whatever.

    I mean, this is the party that champions an ever large welfare system, government controlled healthcare, and a marketplace that is controlled by government regulators and centralized in Washington, DC. Okay, sure, they don’t talk about the proletariat and eliminating all property so everything can be held in common, they don’t use standard socialist rhetoric; they are, however, at least moderate socialists, or social democrats, which is what modern US “liberalism” is. How they are right wing is beyond me.

    (I’m not sure where the Republicans are; aside from the libertarian wing, they’re pretty much all over the map. Statist, I guess.)

  • 19 Sean Lai // Nov 18, 2011 at 7:42 pm

    Mike,

    Yeah, that’s the big question – what to do if our current political system is so completely broken that it is essentially illegitimate? From some corners of the Occupy camp (the more radical strain I discussed above), the answer is to create the conditions of the democracy they’d like to see within the movement itself, and show people that they can organize themselves in a less hierarchical fashion than they may have thought possible. Then Step 2: ??? and Step 3: utopia. Mike Konzcal has the rundown on this theory of activism here: http://rortybomb.wordpress.com/2011/09/30/understanding-the-theory-behind-the-different-approach-of-the-occupy-wall-street-protests/

    I think that’s an extremely ineffective tack to take against the powers that be. If people want to fix the system that exists, they have to engage it on some level, they can’t just seek to destroy it or ignore it.

  • 20 Emily // Nov 19, 2011 at 3:21 am

    Sean–they’re engaging it on the level of public opinion/conventional wisdom. Which is enormously important these days, because it influences the spheres of consensus/deviance (http://www.grist.org/article/2011-02-07-how-a-lie-enters-the-political-bloodstream), which in turn influences what politicians feel they can safely discuss.

    Our system isn’t quite irreparably broken, but shit is fucked up and bullshit. So attention redirection is good.

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  • 22 Democratic Participation and The Tactics of Occupy Wall Street — The League of Ordinary Gentlemen // Nov 19, 2011 at 11:27 am

    […] Wilkinson and Julian Sanchez in particular have had enough and are crying Uncle. They want OWS to start to Participate In the […]

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    […] I’m resisting the urge to use nouns beginning with capital letters. I’m resisting the urge to float utopian political philosophy. Can I quote Foucault? Debord? Can I just use this opportunity to tell you about the Civil Rights […]

  • 24 #OWS and Public Space | Fueled By Scotch // Nov 21, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    […] to bring them up now to this piece over at “Democracy in America” by W.W., but also this one at and by Julian Sanchez, “What Democracy Looks Like”. The second post draws from this […]

  • 25 Fighting for the dream of America | bluejay's way // Nov 21, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    […] plenty of talk of what the Occupy movement needs to do now (see here, here, here, and here), and I agree with much of it: Occupy needs to expand, to incorporate other strategies to get the […]

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    […] negotiated down to a nub in the money-soaked world of transactional politics. I think pundits like Julian Sanchez and Will Wilkinson are off base in calling for OWS to return to normal politics, to start grinding […]

  • 27 Unboxing Occupy Wall Street: We still don’t know what it is, and that’s good | Grist // Nov 21, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    […] negotiated down to a nub in the money-soaked world of transactional politics. I think pundits like Julian Sanchez and Will Wilkinson are off base in calling for OWS to return to normal politics, to start grinding […]

  • 28 What Democracy Looks Like [Julian Sanchez] « alpha insights // Nov 23, 2011 at 1:16 pm

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  • 30 Where Occupy Goes Next and other short notes « The Weekly Sift // Nov 28, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    […] while Julian Sanchez disagrees: protest, however vital as a consciousness raising tool, can only be a preparation for the more humdrum enterprise of convincing your neighbors with sustained arguments (or being convinced yourself), electing candidates, and all the rest. To imagine protest not as prologue to politics, but as a substitute for it, suggests a denial of the reality of pluralism, and an unwillingness to find out what democracy actually looks like. […]

  • 31 Democracy and the rhetoric of protests: A response to Will Wilkinson and Julian Sanchez — The League of Ordinary Gentlemen // Nov 29, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    […] Sanchez had the opening salvo: “A small group of people self-selected for their commitment to some set of shared goals and values may be able to pick a set of slogans to chant in unison, or resolve their limited disagreements by consensus process.  But real democracy in a pluralist society involves deep and often ineradicable disagreement—and not just on the optimal uses of public parks and other commons. It’s true, of course, that concentrated and wealthy interests routinely capture the apparatus of government, and use it to serve ends inimical to the general good. But a frame that sets up an opposition between “the 99%” and “the 1%” —or, if you prefer, between “Washington/media elites” and “Real America”—suggests a vain hope that profound political differences are, at least in some spheres, an illusion manufactured by some small minority.” […]

  • 32 The Occupy movement’s enthusiasm and contempt for democracy | OWS Exposed // Nov 30, 2011 at 10:23 am

    […] Julian Sanchez‘s lead, I’ve argued that now that the Occupy movement has succeeded in shining a […]

  • 33 ティンバーランド // Dec 22, 2011 at 8:29 am

    I don’t totally agree with this, I think it is both simplistic in its description of power and naive in its attempt to craft a new order whole cloth on the rubble of the old, but this is clearly what is meant when people refer to the direct democracy of the streets as “real democracy” and the democracy of the campaign and the election as fake. Simply reiterating the old Weberian chestnut about boring holes into planks doesn’t speak to the assertions these protestors are making.

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