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.