If a fight breaks out, watch the crowd…Private conflicts are taken into the public arena precisely because someone wants to make certain that the power ratio among the private interests shall not prevail.
– E.E. Schattschneider
In The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America, the political scientist E.E. Schattschneider makes two key points about contentious politics: first, that the salience of an issue or problem has less to do with its objective properties than with a political process; and second, that individuals who stand on the sidelines of conflicts—the bystanders—play an important role, through their action or inaction, in determining its shape and outcomes.
Schattschneider’s insights about the importance of conflict expansion are valuable and help inform our understanding about the characteristics and mobilization dilemmas of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S., as well as Canada where it has expanded to numerous cities. Not only can bystanders who become engaged in political conflicts increase or reduce the likelihood of ameliorative action; supporters and participants can also become disengaged if they aren’t sufficiently motivated.
This mobilization dilemma is, at its root, a problem of communication and is one the Occupy movement now faces both as it matures and develops a sense of its own identity, but also as it begins to fade from news headlines, as media coverage focuses more on themes of inconvenience and violence and less on the protest issues itself, and as the reality of an approaching winter challenges the protesters’ resilience. Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters magazine, which set the Occupy movement into motion, puts it this way: “The original magic of some of those general assemblies is wearing a little thin in some — though not all — places. And winter is coming. People are wondering whether they want to hang around for three hours talking about protocol.” If the Occupy protesters intend to make inroads toward achieving a restructuring of political and economic life, it will need to confront this mobilization dilemma head on. This is particularly important in Canada where the levels of movement participation is lower overall.
Structural Strain and the “Problem Load” of Social Issues
There are many reasons people become involved in social movements. A traditional view sees social movements as arising as an adaptive response to problems of political, economic or moral order: the material conditions in a society may become so problematic and dysfunctional that people feel compelled to organize and commit energy, time, emotions, money, and other resources to voicing their discontent and demanding that something be done.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) reports that since the late 1970s the income share of Canada’s wealthiest 1% has doubled, while the share of income for the bottom 80% of Canadian families with children is smaller today than a generation ago. Consumer debt continues to rise in Canada placing individual and family security at risk; and levels of child poverty (particularly among Aboriginal children) remains intolerably high. For the Occupy movement, these and related material indicators are evidence of a deeply rooted problem of structural inequality, caused, in their view, by a general adherence across all levels of government to an ideology and policy framework associated with neo-liberalism.
Andrew Coyne, CBC commentator and national editor of Maclean’s magazine, takes issue with these claims. He notes how the collapse of the housing market in the U.S., which left millions with homes worth less than their mortgages, the actions of a morally questionable financial sector, high rates of unemployment and poverty, and declining or stagnant levels of social mobility and income growth, simply don’t reflect the Canadian experience. In contrast, Coyne argues, Canadians have not witnessed an “epidemic of mortgage failures,” unemployment has been falling, not rising, and official measures of poverty show signs of encouragement. He accuses Canada’s Occupy movement of engaging in a “phony class war” that, in his words, has more to do with “envy” than structural strain.
Are the material conditions sufficient in themselves to motivate or sustain collective action? For Canadians, the answer depends in part on whether you believe the CCPA or Coyne’s argument. But I want to argue here that this may be the wrong question to ask. Starting with Schattschneider, a whole tradition of research in political communication has shown that the “objective problem load” of any given issue (global warming, homelessness, the risk of infectious disease, poverty, illiteracy, etc.) is insufficient in itself for explaining why some problems achieve widespread recognition when others do not, or why governments respond to some issues but ignore others. What matters, this research argues, is the existence of a plausible definition of a problem, the development of a clear and distinctive policy image, and the ability to mobilize support for an agenda of change.
Framing and Mobilization
To be successful, social movements have to package or frame their grievances in ways that resonate with the values, identities and ideological interests of all kinds of bystanders: individuals, groups with shared concerns, journalists, academics and other observers. What sociologists call “framing contests” are essentially battles between competing interests over how to establish and anchor meaning about complex or uncertain problems or events—often, framing battles occur between social movements and their opponents in the corporate sector. The case of the global anti-sweatshop movement and its campaign against Nike is a good example. But framing battles also occur between activist groups who occupy competing positions within a social movement. Robert Benford’s study of the nuclear disarmament movement illustrates how movements can experience schismatic ideological struggles over the identification of a problem and the promotion of best solutions.
In either case, the objective in framing contests is to ensure that your group’s definition of the situation not only prevails in terms of influencing how others talk; it’s to also ensure that your frame prevails to the extent that others will begin to organize their activities and/or carry out their activities and work in ways that are congruent with that frame (this is a double-process Martaan Hajer refers to as discourse structuration and discourse institutionalization).
Social scientists normally talk about framing in relation to how media cover issues and events, how activists attempt to influence the media, policy and public agendas, and of the interactions between them. Journalists frame our understanding of social and political life by emphasizing the importance of certain events, of privileging the voices of some sources and downplaying the perspectives of others, and of spotlighting certain causes and consequences for why something has become worthy of attention. Social activists attempt to influence media coverage, and thus public opinion, by framing the problem in ways that establish clear definitions about what’s wrong, who’s to blame and what should be done. There’s no guarantee, of course, that media or activist frames will ever determine how readers, listeners or viewers comprehend or understand the issue.
The Occupy Movement’s Mobilization Dilemma
Through a commitment to deliberative discourse, the Occupy movement has established the importance of dialogue and consensus-based decision-making. It is not an established movement with clear roots or a clear identity; rather, it emerged more spontaneously out of a shared sense of grievance and frustration about the undue and dangerous influence of corporate interests over politics and policymaking. The movement is best described as emergent—every day it assumes a new form and expresses new grievances and claims. The general refusal of movement participants to identify (or identify with) clear leaders or even express focused demands is refreshing when considered against the highly professionalized and packaged presence of many contemporary activist groups.
Furthermore, this unclear sense of what the movement is and what it wants to see done has been a source of frustration for establishment media, which operates according to a set of normative practices in which stories contain clear beginnings, middles and ends, and where movement objectives and goals are often attached to charismatic figures. A U.S. activist quoted in the New York Times explains how “demands are disempowering since they require someone else to respond.” The Occupy movement’s commitment to a slow and intentionally deliberative process of decision-making in each of its local contexts is designed to expand movement participation by bringing disparate interests and groups into the fold. This form of movement activism speaks not just to the diffused interests and priorities of its multiple participants but also to the ways in which they are stitched together (increasingly) by fragmented and decentralized social networks.
The Occupy movement’s commitment to deliberation and general unwillingness or inability to express a core set of demands has consequences, however. The movement may have an asymmetrical and ambivalent relationship with establishment media, but it’s a relationship it must continue to nurture because the volume and tone of news attention remains fundamental to perceptions of movement success. We may have moved into a new period of media-movement relations in which social platforms like Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and Facebook provide new opportunities for advocates and activists to build and maintain communities of support and to bypass the traditional media filter. But activists ignore the establishment media, with its broader reach and impact not only on traditional policymaking, but also on the very substance of social media chatter, at their peril.
As the Occupy movement develops, activists will face the challenge of refreshing their grievances and messages: not only to show that they remain relevant and worthy of continuing media attention, but that they can also attract new participants and sustain membership and commitment over the long term. Commitment fatigue is a problem all movements face—in the case of the Occupy movement, this fatigue may settle in when supporters fail to see evidence of potential or actual progress, and either drop out of the movement altogether or move on to other issues and campaigns. This will be a true test of its resilience in a society that is so thoroughly saturated by competing issues and problems, dilemmas and distractions.
The State of Public Opinion: What Next for the Occupy Movement?
In the U.S., a convincing majority of Americans are angry and resentful toward Wall Street. A TIME/Abt SRBI poll of “likely voters” conducted on October 9 and 10 showed:
- 54% of respondents have a positive view of the protest movement, well above the 23% who view the Occupy movement negatively
- 80% of respondents agree that wealth disparity in the U.S. is too large while 68% agree that the rich should pay more taxes
- 56% of all respondents predict the Occupy movement will have little impact on public policy
This should be a sign of good news for the movement. There’s lots of public anger about the central “problem” established by the movement (corporate greed, structural inequality, etc.) and a majority of respondents view the movement favourably.
A CNN/ORC International poll conducted on October 14-16 shows similar levels of public outrage and condemnation with Wall Street.
- 80% of respondents agree that bankers are greedy
- 77% say bankers are overpaid
- Roughly 60% agree they’re dishonest
Yet, despite these high levels of distrust, support for the Occupy movement appears to be waning, or at the very least levelling off. Where 54% of TIME poll respondents held favourable views of the movement, only 32% of respondents to the CNN poll a week later said the same. And negative views were 6 points higher, from 23% to 29%. Although these are different polls conducted by different organizations, the significant change in favourability figures offer a snapshot of possible shifts in public opinion.
There have not been similar polls conducted in Canada to identify the existence of any trends. However, a just released Abacus survey (conducted between October 19 and 21) offers valuable insight into the current state of Canadian public opinion its implications for the Occupy movement here.
The data are rich and I draw attention to just a few national highlights:
- 81% agree that “large corporations and the rich have too much influence on public policy and government in Canada” and the same number agree that the “gap between the rich and poor in Canada has grown too large”
- 64% agree with the statement that Canadian financial institutions have been reckless and greedy, compared to only 14% who disagree
- 41% of respondents hold a positive view of the Occupy protests, while 22% view the movement negatively
Perhaps the most significant, if disheartening, finding:
- Despite strong support for the Occupy movement’s raison d’être, 60% believe the movement will have no impact on Canadian politics, while only 18% believe it will spur positive political change
The Abacus data do not tell us why so many Canadians (like Americans) express support for the Occupy protests yet conclude they are unlikely to produce meaningful results. Some critics will argue that media mistreatment of the Occupy movement may be to blame, citing patterns of misrepresentation and the maligning of movement goals. They point to high profile examples where establishment media have mocked or otherwise dismissed the arguments and objectives of the movement as the reasons for why more people might not be getting involved, or why respondents are likely to dismiss the movement’s efficacy (meanwhile, in the U.S., in a campaign to delegitimize the protests, conservative critics are taking aim at establishment journalists—questioning their objectivity and branding them “professional cheerleaders). Others will conclude that this general sense of ambivalence about the potential of the movement to achieve success reflects a wider-held sense of political apathy and malaise.
The [Occupy] movement appears to maturing and entering a critical time when small framing errors could have large negative consequences.
Regardless of the cause, these numbers should be a source of concern for the Occupy movement and its supporters. If there is to be a more fair distribution of wealth and opportunity, and meaningful efforts by governments everywhere to tackle structural inequality (in its multiple forms), this is going to require tangible changes to public policy. Yet, such changes do not happen on their own, on the basis of hopeful thinking, in light of claims to a superior moral vision, or simply because problems are real and can be measured objectively. Such change will require a commitment to translating widely shared grievances that something is fundamentally wrong into concrete demands and practical solutions that can be framed in ways that appeal not only to a committed core of movement adherents (who need to remain energized and motivated), but to policymakers who are in a position to act, and, crucially, to those individuals and groups who may yet become mobilized into action.