Soapbox: Dear Occupy Wall Street, Clean Up Your Act: Four suggestions to make the OWS movement successful

Posted by Eric Shapiro

It is still premature to write a eulogy, but it's fair to say that Occupy Wall Street has not lived up to the astronomical expectations it generated last summer. The movement has largely been supplanted in media coverage by the presidential race, the war in Afghanistan and Rush Limbaugh's repulsive utterances. Part of this was inevitable; no peaceful movement, Tea Party included, can continue to hog the media spotlight forever, especially as its novelty wears off. Without minimizing Occupy Wall Street's legitimate and much-needed contributions to the national discourse, here are some things the movement can do to ensure its future relevance.

1. Drop the extraneous pet causes

Far be it from me to call the value of animal rights activism into question, or to doubt the sincerity of those who single out Israel for its alleged oppression of the Palestinians at a time when Arab regimes are having a ball brutalizing their own people. But a movement concerned with spurring real change should maintain a focused message and a clear sense of purpose. There are plenty of well-funded organizations devoted to the aforementioned causes. Occupy Wall Street should emphasize the parts of its message that resonate in a time of economic crisis: income inequality, corporate welfare and the plight of the 99 percent. Otherwise, it risks coming across as a jumbled patchwork of progressive pet causes that, for better or worse, do not carry all that much weight with the general population.

2. Establish a clear, efficient hierarchy

Occupiers can learn a lot from the successes and failures of past social movements. For instance, many of the key organizations that comprised the second wave of feminism began as freeform, directly democratic affairs that prioritized every voice being heard. Unfortunately, this very same quality came to undermine the cohesion of the movement and limit its capacity to make decisions in a prudent and timely matter. Occupy Wall Street need not fall into this same trap. It currently has something resembling these leaders, but they have thus far not received much media coverage and, consequently, do not benefit from the attention and respect afforded to high profile political figures. To be fair, there have been encouraging signs of late that Occupy Wall Street is a hierarchy better equipped to pursue its lofty goals. Let's hope this trend continues.

3. Mind the Occupy Wall Street image

As much as we would like Occupy Wall Street to function as an extension of our youthful, free spirited selves, it is important to remember that appearance matters greatly to many older Americans sympathetic to Occupy Wall Streets ideas. I have perused various political message boards and have found that many middle-aged and older Americans are far from impressed by the scrappy, disheveled appearance of Occupy protesters. It may remind them of radical New Left movements in the 1960s, whose members threw rocks at soldiers returning from Vietnam and publicly sympathized with the likes of the Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong. It may just give them a bad vibe. Either way, it would be a shame to turn off voters receptive to Occupy Wall Street's underlying message by refusing to obey the basic rules of political decorum. So please, Occupiers, before you get your protest on, have a shave, take a shower and maybe even put on a nice outfit for the cameras.

4. Raise money and back politically viable candidates for office

Lets be real: Ironically, Occupy Wall Street would do well to take a lesson from the Tea Party - its very rough conservative equivalent. The latter movement started small, establishing an infrastructure in communities and grabbing media coverage. Then, as it gained greater attention and more financial support, it set its sights on electing legislators sympathetic to its right-wing populist goals. Granted, the Tea Party had a considerable advantage over Occupy Wall Street: the patronage of the 1 percent. Subsequent investigation has revealed that Republican strategists and donors like the Koch brothers played an indispensable role in conceptualizing and funding the so-called "grass-roots movement. " Occupy Wall Street has not yet attained this level of influence. Yet, its ideas have gained political traction, placing a renewed focus on growing economic inequality in America. In addition, a number of wealthy individuals (many of them celebrities) and organizations donated large sums of money to Occupy Wall Street in its early days. If the movement truly wishes to capitalize on the big splash it made last summer, it must transfer the resonance of its message into political power by means of fundraising and lobbying in Congress. It is not the most glamorous pursuit, to be sure, but you have to play the game in order to change it. 

Closing Thoughts:

Occupy Wall Street is a true grassroots enterprise, unlike the Astroturf Tea Party. It would be a shame for its members to squander the movement's potential out of some misguided notions of ideological purity. As the generation that will inevitably be forced to deal with the deleterious financial effects of the Baby Boomers on American society, it is time to grow up and play an active role in shaping our future. If we refuse to work through the present political system, pulsating warts and all, we will become irrelevant in the issues of our day. Global warming and income inequality, as well as, the stifling of democracy by big money (see my article on Super-Pacs) are not problems that we can conveniently set aside as we live out our communal, post-adolescent fantasies. Unlike our parents, we cannot afford that luxury.

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