Philosophy Weekend: Can We Build a Unified Protest Platform?

I’ve dreamed up a political project so crazy, so utterly out of step with the mood of American media coverage today, that you know I’m going to have to run with it.

Many have suggested that the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement have a lot in common (many others have ridiculed or severely ridiculed this notion). Well, I don’t think it’s worth dwelling on whether or not they currently have a lot in common. Instead, let’s look to the future and ask if a common political platform — addressing the economy, social issues, foreign policy, the environment and electoral reform — can possibly be built that might capture the enthusiasm of a significant fraction of both Tea Party and Occupy protesters. And I’d like to try to construct that platform over the next few Philosophy Weekend blog posts, with your comments and suggestions. I can hardly think of a more exciting and ambitious project to take on.

A unified protest platform for the United States of America — why not? One thing I’m pretty sure about: there are only a few bloggers or political commentators stupid ambitious enough to seriously try something like this. And I’m one of them.

I believe a unified protest platform is possible because the need to fix structural problems in the USA government is so urgent that caring citizens on both sides ought to be willing to cast a wide net in the pursuit of change. Who are the real opponents of Tea Party and Occupy protesters? The automatic answers might include Barack Obama (if you’re a conservative) or the Koch brothers (if you’re a liberal), but I’d like to propose instead that these are the real opponents:

  • Dishonest government bureaucrats
  • Corrupt lobbyists, and the businesses that pay them
  • Pessimistic citizens who fear the future and prefer the safety of the status quo
  • Apathetic or uneducated citizens who don’t understand the urgency of either protest movement

Please note that I said “opponents”, not “enemies”, because a friendly and non-judgmental approach towards fixing major problems is much more likely to gain traction than a hostile and accusatory one. My proposal is to examine the practical political platforms represented by both protest movements, identify the areas of mutual agreement, and suggest some compromises that might appeal to moderate or action-oriented protesters on both sides.

Of course, both the Tea Party and Occupy are amorphous and leaderless entities, so the first challenge is to define the political platforms on both sides. In order to get us started quickly, I’ll propose two personalities that I think represent the ideologies of both sides: Ron Paul, for the Tea Party movement (I’ve been digging into his writings in the past week, inspired by last weekend’s post), and Elizabeth Warren on the Occupy side. These choices are not fully representative, of course, but they are good enough to get this project off the ground. Here are some starting rules:

1. Represent the best, not the worst, of each side. The Tea Party and Occupy movements are large, uneven, highly participatory movements. There are a few hateful voices — racist, dishonest, eager for the opportunities that violence would provide — at the fringes of both. It has been convenient for those who wish to dismiss either movement to point to their worst elements, and so we have been asked to believe that the Tea Party is essentially racist (because of a few offensive posters or signs), or that Occupy is essentially anti-semitic (because a tiny minority of Occupy participants like to point out that many bankers are Jewish). There are also representatives on both sides who believe that an inevitable apocalypse or violent revolution awaits this nation, and hope to see either movement evolve into armed revolt.

As we proceed to build our common platform, we have to be careful to avoid the rhetorical trap of defending either side’s problematic representatives too broadly. If there is actually any racism or anti-semitism lurking within either protest movement, that’s not our problem. If anybody in either movement rejects compromise on principle and prefers to “weapon up” and prepare for violence in the streets, that’s not our problem either. We will aim to represent the best minds on each side, and to find an inclusive and positive platform that can represent both protest movements.

2. Maximize opportunities for common ground, avoid bogging down. There are several issues where today’s protest movements almost seem to converge. On economic policy, both Team Partiers and Occupiers have been highly critical of the Federal Reserve bank system. On social issues, an emphasis on libertarian principles will find appeal on both sides. With regard to foreign policy, there are intriguing seeds of potential partnership to nurture among the antiwar activists on both sides.

In each of these areas, though, there are also issues that will poison any attempt at common ground. Tea Partiers tend to blame the government for the economic crash of 2007/2008, while Occupiers tend to blame the banks. It’s obvious to any sensible observer that both sides are right, and yet this somehow remains a terribly divisive question. On social policy, both sides tend to emphasize a wide range of differences (regarding abortion, gun control, education) that may seem like deal-killers even when compromise positions are available. On foreign policy and attitudes towards foreign intervention, the Tea Party itself is clearly split between the Ron Paul anti-militarism wing and the more conventionally Republican-allied pro-defense-spending contingent, and it’s pretty obvious that a unified protest platform would engage the anti-militarism wing of the Tea Party.

3. The past is gone. Move forward. Forget how much liberals and conservatives have hated each other in the past. That’s got nothing to do with fixing the future. Let’s let it go. Let’s start fresh.

4. As we reach for common ground, don’t get discouraged, and don’t be afraid of failure. Since a unified protest platform is is a pretty crazy idea to begin with, we can at least begin the experiment without an overwhelming expectation of success hanging over our heads. If we get nowhere, we’ll at least have tried. We should certainly expect to be ridiculed, insulted and ignored. As we move forward, we should prepare to laugh off our failures while keeping a keen eye out for the light at the end of the tunnel, as far away as it may seem.

Those are the basic rules, and my next task is to lay out (in the Philosophy Weekend posts that will follow) some basic principles to move this project forward. I also hope to devote future Philosophy Weekend posts to addressing each of the main areas of the platform in turn: economic policy, social issues, foreign policy, the environment, electoral reform. I hope you’ll participate by sharing your ideas, reactions and suggestions as we proceed. If nothing else, this should be fun. Maybe we’ll even get lucky and it’ll turn into something real.

16 Responses

  1. Levi, a big barrier to the
    Levi, a big barrier to the effectiveness of any kind of protest is that both political parties in the U.S. depend on big business and large interest groups funding them–this probably motivates, in part, the protest–and there’s no viable political party or alternative we can support that has any chance of winning the presidential elections. Who are the two major parties going to listen to? The fringe protesters or those who fund their election campaigns and political initiatives? Moreover, as I’m sure many pointed out already, the Tea Party seems run by ultra-conservatives who more or less support the Republican platform. They are very vocal when it comes to criticizing the Democratic agenda, not so much the Republican one: even when Republicans had the same policies, pointing to their glaring partiality and double standards. I don’t see how they could join forces with the Occupy Wall Street movement for a more effective, unified protest. To my mind, a better alternative should have come from President Obama and the Democratic party leadership, as many of us who voted Democrat thought it would. I think the current Democratic party has become too conciliatory and “bipartisan”, to the point where it no longer provides enough of an alternative to the Bush administration we had for 8 years.

  2. Hi Levi,
    I agree, that

    Hi Levi,

    I agree, that the two movements – both, equally, spontaneous eruptions of popular feeling – have been badly tarnished by the coverage they receive in the various media. (Sadly, the best one can say about the media coverage is that it has been cowardly! Sitting on a fence waiting to feel which way the popular wind blows before going after stories that support the prevailing prejudice.)

    The best that can happen now is to put that behind us and try to see them as real expressions of concern, alarm and discontent by real people, in their public role as citizens. This means, to see them with some respect and a willingness to try to understand and come to terms with their underlying concerns. Both sides seem to want real change: not cosmetic legislation which doubles down on past failures.

    Any honest attempt to harness these energies, without doing violence to the core sensibilities involved, and to bring their critique of the status quo to bear is laudable! What the hell, we lose nothing by trying, and we might just win a lot!

    I applaud your choices of Ron Paul and Elizabeth Warren. Interesting that each represents an attitude that is consonant with their respective affiliated movement without being defined (or motivated) by the groups’ most extreme positions. They are “system-insiders” who obviously believe that reforms from within can take place. This summarily excludes the most radical position: “Let’s tear it down and start over!” Good! This is where we should begin, at least.

    This is a very worthwhile attempt and a bold one too. I’ll be looking in and participating as much as I can. ( I was recently thinking of a similar type of round-table discussion, with you as a chief contributor, regarding the abortion debate we addressed, so very generally, last week. Maybe something is in the air: could it be the desperate conviction that honest compromise and coordinated effort is better than name-calling?)

    Have at it, Chum!


  3. re: the tea party and u.s.
    re: the tea party and u.s. global militarism. i think it’s an open question as to how the tea party feels about this phenomenon. despite palin’s recent fade from public consciousness (her 15 minutes seemed to last 15 years), there is still a wing within the tea party in agreement with palin that military spending should be exempt from the “big government and big debt” they rail so much against.

    my impression of the tea party is that, while it may have started as a genuine grass roots movement in late 2008, it was, within months, basically co-opted by various corporate concerns to fit their agendas. hard for me to see it any other way at this point. i googled “tea party platform,” and these 10 “core beliefs” came up:

    1. eliminate excessive taxes
    2. eliminate the national debt
    3. eliminate deficit spending
    4. protect free markets

    a corporatist’s dream so far, right? no new taxes! and we get to eliminate the debt and reduce spending . . . and how? . . . by cutting government social programs of course (since the revenue side is apparently untouchable). and of course we push ever closer to the “free market” grail . . .

    then, no. 5. abide by the constitution (well, can’t win them all . . .)

    6. promote civic responsibility (by manufacturing and steering the movement)
    7. reduce the size of government (see # 2 and 3 above)
    8. believe in the people– “the american people, given their guaranteed freedoms, will thrive in a democratic, capitalist environment”
    9. avoid the pitfalls of politics– “american politics is burdened by big money from lobbyists and special interests with an undue influence on the peoples’ representatives” (like the corporate-sponsored tea party, perhaps?)
    and 10. maintain local independence (not sure what this means)

    yes, reduce the size of government. as the corporate uber-lobbyist grover nordquist put it, “shrink government so small that i can drown it in a bathtub.” (and let’s get back to “business as usual.”)

    and kevin, i guess i’m still not understanding how insisting that abortion should be illegal amounts to “honest compromise.” maybe it’s just me.

  4. levi, apology in advance . .
    levi, apology in advance . . . a bit off-topic here (though it goes to the general idea of “honest communication”), but to follow up on your remark, kevin:

    did i misinterpreted your position? to me, statements such as . . . “it (abortion) would cease to be a merely legal life-style option” imply a viewpoint that abortion should not be legal in some cases. what does “life-style option” mean?” who decides that? highly (and perhaps hopelessly) subjective.

    the legal status of any phenomenon that is, as you describe, basically “metaphysically indeterminate,” and its morality not provable in a courtroom nor with any clear societal consensus, should default to “legal,” not “illegal.” that was my main point.

  5. Interesting. I did have the
    Interesting. I did have the thought that they could keep their beloved 2nd Amendment in exchange for real support for the 1st and 4th Amendments. Mainstream Dems and Repubs are becoming irrelevant.

  6. mnaz, I applaud your clarity
    mnaz, I applaud your clarity and logic. It’s what I’ve been trying to say as well, but you got to the essence of it:

    “The legal status of any phenomenon that “metaphysically indeterminate,” and its morality not provable in a courtroom nor with any clear societal consensus, should default to “legal,” not “illegal.”

  7. Bill and Mnaz, this is what
    Bill and Mnaz, this is what Kevin wrote:

    “It [abortion] would cease to be a merely legal life-style option. It would again belong to the class of actions we judge primarily morally, not legally.”

    That is, I think he’s saying that the question of legality shouldn’t dominate the public discussion of abortion policy, that it’s possible for a person or a family or a segment of society to take a strong personal or moral stand against abortion even when abortion is legal. Which is, I think, consistent with what several of us are also saying.

  8. until things get so bad, no
    until things get so bad, no one will be organizing.

    also, most don´t understand how gov´t works, e.g., we get to live with TSA body searches for 10 more years. if people would pay as much attention to gov´t as they do sports and pop culture, the USA would be a much different place. unless radical action is taken–and this is impossible due to voter apathy and lack of participation–the USA´s continued de-evolution for the majority and the rape of the country by the elites is ensured.

    if the rappers put the word out, maybe something would happen.

    as mencken once said, ¨The Republic is the best it´s ever been and it´s the worst it´s ever been.




  9. thanks bill. and thanks
    thanks bill. and thanks levi, for your interpretation / clarification. in response i would say: we already have a “segment of society taking a strong personal / moral stand against abortion.” the problem is, part of this segment does so by pushing to make abortion illegal, which exceeds the bounds of “personal.”

  10. I’m sure you’re aware of the
    I’m sure you’re aware of the latest bit of news from “an Oct. 4 internal Romney campaign memo obtained by The Washington Examiner describes Koch as the ‘financial engine of the Tea Party’ even though Koch ‘denies being directly involved.’ Koch endorsed Romney for president in 2008 and his well-funded group is credited with electing dozens of Republicans to Congress in 2010 and creating a network of Tea Party loyalists who are critical to Romney’s chances of winning the nomination, political strategists say.”

    The Koch Brothers, more directly, David Koch is the financial engine that fuel the Tea Party;

    Do you or anyone here really believe that the OWS movement and the Tea Party will EVER come together in a ‘Kumbaya Moment” and join hands for the good of America? I think not.

    There is so much money invested in the Corporate takeover of our Country that those behind it and their supporters will always be on the other side of the proverbial fence in an attempt to steer the ship away from it’s most logical course – a destination that favors that 99% the OWS has allied with.

    We have all heard the refrain from the Republican/Conservative agenda “the Government is too big!!” But yet has anyone countered that a larger government is a far better choice than a large Corporate takeover (think Koch Bros)? Think about it – Corporations now have an equal say-so due to the Republican majority in SCOTUS (thanks in large part to Geo. Dubya Bush and Co.) which is continuing to pave the way for the takeover… and the vast sums of moneys the banks are holding (for the Energy Conglomerates and food giants, not to mention the Pharma Giants.) With the amounts of money those Big 3 have on hand, energy, food and medicine, they together support the banks of their choice on what increasingly seems to be their personal banks. Their disdain for our Government (read mnaz’s comment by Grover Norquist) is evident in the Republican Congress that simply has no interest in offering ANY help to the 90-99% of us… they are too busy enjoying their undeserved prosperity at our cost.

    No… the Tea Party being what it truly is and quite likely what it has always been, is another side to a near-maniacal, fringe group of 1% of our country who have bought their rights to continue pillaging the Treasury of our Nation and using ‘we the people’ as pawns in their continuing effort to have their Corporate Flags wave over our Capital… and should we not stop and question their goals, could very well assist them without fully realizing what is happening.

    I certainly do agree with you, Levi, that there is an urgent need for Americans to come together and “take back our Country” (as the extreme right loves to rant) from this insidious group of people who really don’t like our Government, a Government that has stood strong and tall for it’s citizens for over 235 years. We all need our government much more than we need Corporate takeover, and the more powerful Corporations become, the more they will continue stacking the Congress, SCOTUS and POTUS with pawns for them. With our Nation now rich with over 312.5 Million people, it is extremely likely that there are fair-minded, honest citizens who have answers that should be listened to and reasonably discussed … ideas to bring back the values of this country into the hands of its people. Without that simple goal, America may very well become a dream gone bad, never to be seen on the face of our planet again.

  11. Hi Levi,
    Thanks for this

    Hi Levi,

    Thanks for this innovative idea and for providing the forum where different perspectives on major issues can be discussed.

  12. After browsing the blog (no,
    After browsing the blog (no, that’s not an old Rufus Thomas song) before commenting, I noticed something that seems to happen quite a bit, and happened to this thread; and that is, that the discussion often is side-tracked, and rather quickly, too. This one doesn’t seem as wayward as some of the others but haven’t we missed the point slightly? Which, if I read your opening paragraph correctly, is whether there are consistent causes of discontent which could lead to a unified grassroots protest movement spanning the political divide?

    It’s a reasonable approach; it an harmonious approach; it’s a kind approach. But it is the wrong approach. Practically and philosophically, it is a wish for eternal compromise and stasis. And I would immediately cast around for sympathetic souls to create a group in opposition to it.

    First of all, the suggestion is predicated on the assumption that all structural deficiencies are corruptions; that there is a universally acknowledged and valued political and social infrastructure. But I doubt that you could get even a rough consensus on one side as to what that is, let alone alone across the spectrum. Furthermore, not all deficiencies are corruptions; ideologically, some deficiencies are inherent in the underlying premise of government and social structure. They are built-in to the infrastructure.

    Equally, I don’t see the problem with the opposing movements. Range of perspective is not the problem. It never has been. Commitment takes us forward, not comfort. We want the passion if ideology, not the politics of amelioration.

    It is when we lose the battle to fight without violence that this becomes a problem. But that’s a shortcoming on both sides, most evident in our inclination to demonise our those in the other camp. Often I despair of people who purport to travel the same road as I but whose behaviour and attitudes leave much to be desired.

    There was a song round 1970 by Blue Mink called Melting Pot. I hated that song for the same reasons – make everyone the same and relieve everyone of the responsibility for learning how to behave towards each other. And eliminating the excitement and glorious experience of difference, whether it is racial or intellectual.

  13. Hi Alan Skinner — it’s great
    Hi Alan Skinner — it’s great to read your feedback.

    A couple of quick responses: first, you are weighing my proposal on a theoretical basis (“Practically and philosophically, it is a wish for eternal compromise and stasis.”). But I wasn’t thinking about eternity when I made this suggestion. It’s a suggestion for right here, right now. I’m proposing that Tea Partiers and Occupiers work together to fix the particularly urgent problems that are plaguing the country right now. Afterwards, we can go right back to hating each other if everybody wants.

    Second, you say our conflict-based process is working. I find it hard to believe that you are satisfied with the current level of public dialogue over economics, social issues and foreign policy in the USA right now. I think it’s absolutely insipid, childish and embarrassing. We had an economic crash and an employment crisis, and the media fixated for over a year on Obama’s birth certificate. We need serious debates over budget deficits and taxation, and have just spent the past week hearing about Herman Cain’s problems with women. Pathetic. This is what our divided, partisan media has given us. I am 100% sure we can do better. You’re satisfied with this?

  14. Hi Levi –

    Hi Levi –

    Interesting experiment… I can’t wait to see how it turns out. This conversation is a bit intimidating but I have at least one suggestions on where I think common ground can be found. I was watching Ken Burns’s documentary on Prohibition last month and one of the ideas he put forward was that the Temperance/Prohibition movement gained traction because it appealed to multiple groups with a variety of ideologies. While they may not have agreed on the reasons why, they all saw Prohibition as being beneficial to their own individual causes.

    Term limits for Congress (or some other form of Congressional Reform?) – I believe, whether you’re speaking to the Tea Partiers or the Occupiers, you’ll find dissatisfaction with those representing us in Congress. (The Huffington Post reported on a 9% approval rating for Congress at the end of October – based on CBS/NYT poll). The fact is that career politicians avoid taking a stand for fear of alienating what they see as the most vocal segment of their electorate or jeopardizing their climb up the party ladder or loosing corporate funding. By limiting their ability to serve – maybe to a maximum of 3 consecutive 4 year terms? – it may be possible to open up the playing field. This could have universal appeal among those looking for a 3rd party, a reduction in corporate influence (i.e. – money), and it could possibly change the political discourse (i.e. – maybe limit grandstanding speeches and mudslinging for the cameras).

    Apologies for the disorganized nature of my comment – I’m throwing it up during lunch. 😉

  15. Hello, Levi
    No, I don’t for a

    Hello, Levi

    No, I don’t for a moment think that what is being done right now works at all, whether that is in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Italy, Germany, Greece … well, I’m sure you got the point a half a dozen countries ago. The level of discussion is infantile, the posturing boorish and the prognosis for any meaningful outcome is well, … not good. I am filled with more dissatisfaction than I have the words to express.

    Everything you say, I agree with. It is pathetic. But the problem is that people confuse belief and ideology with polemic and power. The Fourth Estate has become a third arm for both sides and in doing so they’ve sold their birthright.

    And you are right, of course, that my comments were aimed at a far more general and theoretical level. As such, they are also tinged with a bit of mischief, not meant at all unkindly, but sometimes our immediate wish to do good comes back to bite us somewhere down the road.

    It is hard to see where the common cause could be, though. It did occur to me that maybe we had to look at what each side fears most because that is where we are most driven and most irrational. Maybe in those dark, uncertain corners we can find something to trigger the willingness to work together. On even one thing.

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