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How Much Does America Really Love Democracy?

If the First Amendment was meant to protect any kind of speech at all, it certainly was meant to cover what the Occupy movement is doing: identifying inequities, agitating for redress and dramatizing the need for change.
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As police began wholesale attacks on the Occupy Wall Street protests in early November, I attended a dinner party at "the scene of the crime," as many Occupy protestors call it -- the New York Stock Exchange. Hosted by NYSE and arranged by a group called wf360, the event was billed as a night of conversations around questions beginning with "What if...?"

My 200 fellow dinner guests were mostly senior executives, mostly from the financial industry, mostly (seemingly) Republicans. A lot of what was said, however, sounded little like the empty rhetoric out of Washington or cable news. There was widespread disgust with government paralysis and both political parties. More surprising, there was widespread sympathy for the problems of ordinary Americans and a broad appreciation of a central message of the Occupy movement -- the message cable news can't seem to get -- that the US needs to get money out of politics and end corporate control of government.

Reflecting the spirit of the evening, one diner, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, rose to ask, "What if the Occupy Wall Street protestors are our Arab Spring?" He added, "What if they are moving the line between the governing and the governed?"

"Arab Spring" holds special meaning for Dempsey. He has spoken with palpable awe of the popular revolutions rearranging Middle East politics. He credits the downfall of Egypt's Mubarak to "Facebook and social networking, a leaderless organization that rose up and we call the Arab Spring," Agence France Presse reports. Speaking about these "viral" uprisings to world military leaders in London in June, he said, "I think our imaginations are just beginning to touch the edges of what it might mean...."

Continuing that theme back home, Dempsey stood in a private dining room of the New York Stock Exchange contemplating the rise of such a "leaderless organization" in America. In public and private conversation, he seemed to sway between his military duty to put down insurrections and his devotion to the idea that America stands for the unquestioned goodness of democracy.

When I think about the last few months in American politics, I think about the clashing themes Dempsey conjures. Our support for democracy, in the abstract, and for the growing democratic protests across the world is counterbalanced by our fear of democracy in action and our official tolerance of police violence in multiple US cities against peaceful protesters. In these and other ways, the Occupy movement confronts America with our contradictions.

Let's look at a few of those contradictions: We live in an America where the bedrock promise of opportunity for all is contradicted by the widening gap between rich and poor; the promise of democracy is contradicted by the dominance of money and corporate interests in our politics; the promise to support freedom is contradicted by our historic support of repressive dictators like Mubarak and our ambivalence about majority rule in the Middle East; our promise of free speech and free assembly is contradicted by use of rubber bullets, pepper spray, beatings and arrests to put down protesters here at home. This list could go on, but that's a start.

It is obtuse, I fear, not to interpret recent police violence in the US as a sign of intentional and coordinated opposition to the Occupy movement by official America, whether you call that group the 1%, the Establishment, the ruling class or any other name.

For those fond of obtuseness, please remember that Oakland Mayor Jean Quan told the BBC she decided to evict her city's protesters after discussing the matter with 18 mayors on a conference call. Many of these mayors executed similar evictions and mass arrests immediately after that call, all citing what they termed health and safety concerns. That same week, MSNBC's Chris Hayes reported on a memo in which a large DC lobbying firm proposed that its client, the American Association of Bankers, pony up $850,000 to create "negative narratives" about Occupy and the politicians who support the protests.

Are the rights of the Occupy movement being violated by the American establishment or are police merely enforcing the law? Assuming that the protestors were, in fact, breaking the law, how should our democracy react to non-violent civil disobedience? Isn't such lawbreaking enshrined in the founding of the nation and the modern American notion of free expression?

When considering these questions, it is important, first, to see the context. At the heart of what's going on in our politics is something that left and right broadly agree about: We are in a long-standing crisis and our government isn't doing anything about it.

In case you are in the tiny minority that disagrees with that statement, let's remember that the middle class has been shrinking for 35 years as the gap between rich and poor has been widening. There are now 100 million Americans living either in poverty or just fractionally above the poverty line while the top 1% of American earners have seen their outsized share of total wages nearly triple and they now control 40% of the country's total wealth.

Meanwhile, among the other 99%, misery spreads. Seriously delinquent mortgages started rising again in September, up to 4.9% of all mortgages, according to the New York Fed and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. This is roughly half what the rate was at the end of 2009, happily, but still nearly three times the delinquency average for the three decades prior to the crash of 2008. Unemployment, of course, sits at 8.6%, a recent low, after a welcome half-point drop in early December. But for youth it's double that, for Hispanics it's more than double and for African-Americans it's more than triple that. If you are a typical American, you see the majority of America in crisis while the rich keep getting richer and Congress does absolutely nothing to turn things around.

Times are so hard that most Americans now question the country's longest-running mythical narratives about hope, hard work and social mobility -- the bedrock social contract that we call the American dream. Pew's Economic Mobility Project, in fact, finds that a majority of Americans (54%) now feel the government helps the rich "a great deal," but only 6% say it helps "people like me." In short, by a 9-to-1 margin, Americans see the game is rigged against them.

It is in this context that Occupy Wall Street sprang up in Manhattan two months ago with a central message about the essential unfairness of America -- the growing disparity between rich and poor; the escalating clash between the rights of flesh-and-blood persons with the expanding rights accorded to money itself and to legal-fiction persons known as corporations. (Harold Myerson recently referred to the Citizens United decision as "one dollar, one vote.")

My point is simple: the protests are actually about something (or a set of somethings) very seriously wrong with America. The protests are about things that many of us agree deserve our serious attention. The substance of the protestors' complaints are so serious and widespread, in fact, that they have given rise to the kind of "leaderless organization" that is bringing down governments in other parts of the world; so serious that America's highest-rankling military leader wonders out loud about the similarities among Cairo, Tripoli and Oakland.

I make this point because we should acknowledge that if the First Amendment was meant to protect any kind of speech at all, it certainly was meant to cover what the Occupy movement is doing: identifying inequities, agitating for redress and dramatizing the need for change. We need to acknowledge that the First Amendment is a safety valve that actually protects the 1% from revolution by allowing for political change.

So I am troubled, to say the least, by official America's intolerance of free speech, particularly when the speech addresses subjects so central to our expressed national beliefs and so important to our political process. I think we should all be troubled.

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