[Marxism] Answer to article's question: give it a little time

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 14 07:09:10 MDT 2011


Americans are angry. Why aren’t they protesting?
By David S. Meyer, Published: August 12

There’s something exciting, sometimes terrifying, about people taking to 
the streets to get what they want. In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, they 
gathered to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. In Athens, 
demonstrators set up a gallows in front of Parliament, threatening the 
socialist government, which was imposing austerity measures in the face 
of 15 percent unemployment. Most recently, in London and across England, 
young people have assembled at night, looting stores and burning cars to 
demand — well, that’s not clear yet.

Whether you’re inspired or appalled depends on your politics. 
Demonstrators who play to our hopes are heroes; those who challenge our 
beliefs are at best misguided and at worst terrorists. Regardless, those 
in the streets carrying petrol or placards project their anger and 
aspirations to an audience as broad as possible. When they’re 
successful, we talk about their concerns as well as their tactics.

What about here in the United States? Polls consistently show that fewer 
than half of Americans approve of the job that President Obama is doing, 
and those ratings are far higher than Congress or either political party 
receives. Unemployment remains stubbornly above 9 percent. There is 
plenty of anger in America today: anger about joblessness across the 
nation, about cutbacks in services in the states, about increased 
tuition at our universities, about economic and political inequality 
that seems to be increasing, and at a government that seems unable to do 
anything about any of this. Where are the people taking to the streets?

The closest thing to a strong social movement in the United States in 
recent years has been the tea party, and it demands that government do 
less. Lately, we hear about the tea party largely from members of 
Congress and candidates for office, who have drowned out and replaced 
the activists at the grass roots.

This is largely because although movements carry anger, anger doesn’t 
make a movement — organizers do. Anger helps, of course; it’s a resource 
that organizers can stoke, channel and exploit.

Although saints and psychopaths will take great risks in the service of 
their beliefs, most people are a little more calculating. People protest 
when they believe that something is wrong, that it could be otherwise, 
and that their efforts are both necessary and potentially effective.

They rarely make these calculations by themselves. Rather, they respond 
to those around them. Ostensibly spontaneous eruptions of political 
protest reflect the hard work and investment of organizers who cultivate 
grass-roots activism. Organizers point to a government’s provocations, 
focusing on the issues that they believe will spur action. They nurse 
both moral righteousness and a sense that it’s actually possible to get 
something done — both essential for sustained action. And, perhaps most 
important, they point to others who are already active, telling the 
newly recruited that they are not alone and that, together, they can matter.

There’s a long and proud history of Americans standing up for what they 
want, dating back, at least, to the original tea party in Boston in 
1773. That tea party grew into a revolution and ultimately produced a 
government that would not be so easy to topple. The American political 
system is structured to channel anger and discontent into political 
institutions. James Madison, the genius behind the Constitution, 
envisioned a system of government that would embrace dissent and offer 
malcontents the hope, however distant, that they can get what they want 
by working through it. Protesters who start in the streets envision 
themselves, or at least their causes, entering the halls of power.

We recently saw how this system works in a city that bears that founding 
father’s name — Madison, Wis. When newly elected Gov. Scott Walker (R) 
began his term last fall with a budget bill that stripped public-sector 
unions of most of their collective-bargaining rights — and their workers 
of a lot of money — citizens responded. Teachers, firefighters, police 
officers and those who depend upon them streamed into the Capitol, 
staging marches, demonstrations and sleep-ins. Aided by Democratic state 
senators who left the state to deny the majority a quorum, they stalled 
the governor’s agenda and commanded national attention. Liberal 
activists saw Wisconsin as both the greatest threat to their interests 
and the best opportunity they had to build a national movement to 
counter the tea party.

When the Wisconsin activists lost, they turned their efforts to 
institutional politics, moving the battle front to a half-dozen recall 
elections. Rather than marching, they raised and spent money on 
campaigns challenging Republican incumbents, producing leaflets and 
television commercials, and calling on their supporters to bring their 
protest to the polls. Their opponents responded in kind. More than $30 
million from conservative advocacy groups and organized labor flowed 
into Wisconsin, a kind of stimulus program for political consultants.

The Democrats won two of the six seats they contested this past week, 
meaning that some of the people who voted for Walker did not support his 
broad agenda — though not enough to flip the balance of power. Almost 
immediately, both sides turned to the next elections on the horizon, 
claiming victories, moral and otherwise, and trying to keep people 
engaged in their political aims. The protest in the streets has flowed 
into more conventional, if not more civil, politics.

What gets people out into the streets to demonstrate? It’s not general 
unhappiness about policy, be it on immigration or the national debt. 
Social movements are products of focused organization. Even the icons of 
activism in American history wielded influence through larger groups. 
Rosa Parks wasn’t just a tired seamstress in 1955, when she refused to 
move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. She was a longtime 
organizer who served as chapter secretary of the local NAACP, which 
organized a bus boycott and a lawsuit in response to her action. Earlier 
that year, she had attended a workshop on nonviolent action at a labor 
center, the Highlander Institute, where she read about Gandhi and the 
Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down 
segregation in public schools. All of the specific actions weren’t 
choreographed, but activists had spent years building the infrastructure 
and cultivating the ideas that made the bus boycott possible.

Without such organizational support, individual actions might be 
dramatic and heroic, but effective movement politics is a test of 
endurance. Organization gives individual efforts meaning and staying power.

Today, most of the organized protest in the United States has been from 
the right side of the political spectrum, grouped loosely under the 
mantle of the tea party. Conservative activists, funded by large 
corporate interests, have been building a movement for more than a 
decade. Americans for Prosperity, founded and funded by the billionaire 
Koch brothers, has invested in conservative ideas and activism. 
FreedomWorks, led by former House majority leader Dick Armey, has worked 
to seed conservatism at the ground level. Groups such as these have 
produced reports, trained and employed organizers, funded electoral 
campaigns, and worked the media. When public anger at the Bush-Obama 
Wall Street bailout bubbled up, followed by public anxiety about Obama’s 
health-care reforms, professional activists were ready to support and 
channel it. It’s not that there wasn’t conservative anger and concern at 
the grass roots, but it took resources to funnel it into a national 

There were large national demonstrations and numerous local actions in 
2009 through the fall of 2010, but — encouraged by Madison’s design — 
efforts increasingly focused on the elections. After large Republican 
gains in the 2010 midterms, the grass roots became harder and harder to 
find, as organizers and fundraisers turned to the Republican 
presidential primaries.

The Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives was extremely 
engaged in the budget and debt-ceiling negotiations, though at the grass 
roots, that issue wasn’t as much of a concern. Local groups are dividing 
among issues, with some, such as immigration, not so urgent to the tea 
party’s business sponsors, who value cheap labor. They are also dividing 
among candidates, with some, perhaps such as Michele Bachmann, not so 
attractive to corporate interests that care about winning the general 

And for the tea partyers and others across the political spectrum, 
there’s anger about unemployment. The situation feels much worse than 
the official jobless rate. Most of us know middle-aged men and women who 
have lost their jobs and fear they will never work again. As a 
professor, I routinely encounter earnest and intelligent college 
graduates who are increasingly desperate to find work that will allow 
them to begin paying off their student loans or even move out of their 
childhood homes. But without anything resembling a social movement, they 
work on formatting résumés and updating networks so they won’t stay 
among the millions of unemployed. Something more ambitious than that, 
however, takes organization.

Sometimes, as during the Great Depression, organized labor has spoken 
for the unemployed as well as those with jobs. In contemporary America, 
however, most unions have been focused on protecting their members, 
including funding the Democratic recall efforts in Wisconsin. As the 
2012 elections approach, expect to see unions working to protect Obama, 
putting their differences and disappointments with him on the back burner.

And any Republican candidate with a chance to beat Obama is bound to be 
a disappointment to tea party ideologues. Expect to see the larger 
groups working to get voters to the polls, rather than people to the 

Frustration and disappointment are butting up against political 
pragmatism. Just like James Madison planned.

David S. Meyer is a professor of sociology and political science at the 
University of California at Irvine and the author of “The Politics of 
Protest: Social Movements in America. His blog is politicsoutdoors.com.

Meyer will be online to chat at 1 p.m. ET on Monday, Aug. 15. Submit 
your questions or comments now.

Read more from Outlook, friend us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

More information about the Marxism mailing list