Rekindle lingering Occupy movement spirit
BUT I DIGRESS
Published: Monday, September 3, 2012
Updated: Monday, September 3, 2012 22:09
I was out of the country for most of this past spring, but even from southern Spain I could pick out the signs that usually appear at the beginning of an election year.
From my—albeit short—life experience when it comes to presidential elections, it seems like we can start to observe the mood of a presidential race once fall begins. As early as six months before anyone shows up at the voting booths, the news media picks up on the zeitgeist of the American voter.
We all witnessed the hopeful idealism that sprang up, particularly among young voters, around President Barack Obama’s first campaign in 2008. Even in the midst of what would become a full-scale recession, the spirit of 2008 carried over to secure a Democratic White House. But we also watched that same idealism fade away as his first term played out.
Then it gradually withered as bank bailouts and health care legislation debates reminded us of the shattered state of our economy and political system.
Four years later, the mood surrounding this election feels much more bitter, pragmatic and resigned—the polar opposite of the last election. We are now suffering from an idealism hangover of sorts, through which we can understand the current mood of the American populace. If the campaign organizers for both major parties can tap into this new, more jaded attitude, it could even sway the course of the election.
What happened to this idealist spirit—the one that inspired our generation to believe it could make a difference and brought thousands of protesters to Occupy movements across the country? It can’t be a coincidence that the dissolution of Occupy and the growing reported disappointment in Obama began around the same time.
Certainly there is a strong link between the spirit that grew out of the 2008 election and the common belief in grassroots activism that fueled Occupy.
For example, a New York Times article from last January on new student activism mentioned, “Ericka Hoffman, 26, a junior at California State University, Bakersfield, and one of the organizers of Occupy Colleges, a nonprofit group that facilitates Occupy movements at colleges.” She was quoted saying, “Before Occupy, activism did not interest her, but that changed with President Obama’s election. Ms. Hoffman saw him enacting policies as usual and, in her view, coming down on the side of Wall Street.”
Through Occupy, young people like Hoffman found an outlet for their frustration with the bailout policies and their disappointment in the government’s tolerance of Wall Street corruption and inequality.
Occupy has been credited by some columnists for reversing the “apathy” our generation has been accused of for years. It was a youth movement’s impassioned response to outrageous tuition, staggering student debt figures and growing inequality between the rich and the poor, among countless other factors. Moreover, journalists have exhaustively documented the “spirit” of the Occupy protests. When I walked through Zuccotti Park in October 2011, it just felt a lot like the atmosphere at the Democratic Convention that nominated Barack Obama in 2008, and even what it felt like the night he was elected president. According to a Pew Research poll, young voters were “unusually active” in both campaign work and voting during the 2008 election. According to the Young Democrats of America, voter turnout among the millennial generation “tripled or even quadrupled in many primary states,” and “over 6.5 million young voters participated in the primary contests or caucuses in 2008, an increase of 103 percent over 2004.”
There is no denying that 2008 politically mobilized young Americans in a way that had not existed before, and Occupy renewed that spirit in 2011.
But then Occupy died out. Can it really be, as columnists and talking heads usually much older than us like to claim, that our generation’s experiment with social activism and ’60s-style protest was so short-lived because our attention spans are really that short?
Did the Occupy movement last less than a year because we—raised on instant gratifications and downloads—are accustomed to the convenience of high-speed everything and couldn’t sustain a social movement by dedicating ourselves fully to it?
Regardless of the causes behind its decline, the ultimate and lasting impact of Occupy, as much of the media seems to be saying, is that it made terms like “the 1 percent” common knowledge in American homes.
More people are aware of the growing wealth gap and have witnessed the recession personally affect their quality of life.
And as young people overwhelmingly attended the Occupy protests, I think we can take credit for raising these issues and putting them at the forefront of this current election.
Even if Occupy never springs to life again, it will have at least started these conversations. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that the focus on Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney’s tax returns and the emphasis on the exorbitant funds he has raised from banks and corporation PACs are partially the result of an increased call for transparency and resentment of the extremely wealthy and their influence in Washington—all issues propagated by Occupy.
The best possible outcome of this new pessimism is if it snowballed into actual anger, and manifested itself in a renewed attack on corruption in government.
Come November, we will see what impact this anti-idealism has on voter turnout among young people.
Hopefully the social activism legacies of 2008 and 2011 will continue to inspire young voters to take matters into their own hands—even if the new way does not involve rallies or occupations.