Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Giving the People What They Want

(photo by Steve Rhodes via)

Someone pointed me to this item about a survey which found that, contrary to the propaganda line about overtaxed, over-regulated small businesses, taxes and regulations are quite low on the list of small business owners' concerns. What's particularly intriguing is that the people who conducted the survey evidently expected to get results that fit their right-wing preconceptions. One shouldn't rely too much on one survey, of course, but happily ThinkProgress could point to other surveys which came to the same conclusion.

I hadn't heard this before, but I wasn't surprised. By now I'm used to the idea that government, business and media elites shouldn't be trusted.

Similarly, we are frequently told that most of the citizenry objects to dirty communists taking over the streets, going on strike, and otherwise disrupting the peaceful course of modern life. So I wasn't at all surprised to hear that a BBC poll found that a solid majority of Britons supported the public-sector workers' strike that began today. American support for the Occupy movement appears to be dropping right now, but that doesn't mean that most Americans support the Right's programs; public opinion presumably is unchanged from the status quo, which consistently wants social programs to continue, is less worried about the deficit than about jobs and mere petty survival, and is comfortable with imposing higher taxes on the rich. And this state of affairs persists even in the face of deliberate attempts to mislead the public.

(I've been wondering why I haven't been hearing more from my usual sources about the Egyptian parliamentary elections. Maybe it's because it's hard to squeeze the results into the usual boxes? Turnout, the head of the election commission reported, is high, but "he did not give figures." The US-supported military claims the high turnout vindicates them, though some voters "said they were voting simply to avoid a fine the military announced would be imposed on anyone who did not cast a ballot — 500 Egyptian pounds, or about $85, a significant amount in a country where 40 percent of the population makes less than $1 a day or just slightly more." Egyptian Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood are claiming "an early lead", which worries Israel, the beacon of democracy in the Middle East that got along so well with Mubarak's long dictatorship. Protesters continue to occupy Tahrir Square despite state violence that has killed dozens of people. But the segments of the blogosphere I watch have not had much to say about the elections yet.)

I'd been meaning to write about this stuff before, but then today I found two articles that gave me pause. One, by Ian Welsh, whose point of view and arguments I take seriously even when I don't agree with them, began as follows:

When Occupy started, there were polls that showed the public supported it. Later, polls showed that support had dropped and a majority no longer supported Occupy. In the first case progressives were pleased, in the second upset.

I didn’t care either time. Repeat after me:

Public opinion does not matter.

It is irrelevant. A large majority of the population wanted a public option added to the healthcare bill. A small majority wanted single payor. Calls against TARP were running 100:1 to 1200:1 against. There is no public option, there is no single payer, and TARP passed.

He went to point out the successful suppression of referenda on economic issues in Europe. "Our elites will do what they will do regardless of what public opinion is ... What matters isn’t what the public thinks, what matters is what the public does which has a tangible, real, cost to politicians or their masters."

True enough, as long as it's understood what "public opinion" means in this context. (There's also a begged question there: matters to whom?) As I've argued before, it's not possible that politicians in Washington, especially the Obama administration, don't know what the public wants; they just think they can ignore it. And yet they keep doing the polls, which seems odd. Elections, however empty a ritual, are required by law to take place, but opinion polls are not. Maybe our rulers keep hoping that someday they'll get the results they want.

Elections are interesting, though. On one hand, the ever-rising cost of running for office ensures a certain narrowing of the field of candidates. But on the other, the Tea Party managed to have a palpable impact on government at numerous levels in 2010. This happened partly because their corporate sponsors didn't realize until it was too late that their creation was going to blow up in their faces. I can't help wondering why some "progressive," even left candidates couldn't do the same thing. Despite the best efforts of the major parties to avoid unpleasant surprises, they keep happening. It's clear that Obama is doing his best to ignore pressure from his left (via), hence his silence so far on OWS.

I also stumbled on this post by Will Wilkinson, who appears to be a libertarian. I've read his blog a little, because IOZ has him on his blogroll, but I haven't been impressed. Today's essay, "The Occupy Movement's Enthusiasm and Contempt for Democracy," appeared under the rubric of "The Moral Sciences Club," which sounds like something out of a 1940s comic book for boys, and turns out to consist entirely of posts by Will Wilkinson. He begins by declaring that
now that the Occupy movement has succeeded in shining a spotlight on its primary concerns -- rising inequality, political corruption, and debt peonage -- Occupiers and their allies now ought to pull up stakes, give up their whimsically undemocratic semi-privatization of public spaces, and endeavor to reform public policy through the democratic institutions established to make the collective determination of binding public rules legitimate. Moving on to seek reform through established democratic channels would require giving up the insolent and frankly disrespectful presumption that these often radically left-wing congregations somehow represent not only a majority of Americans, but 99% of them. It would require Occupiers to square up to the fact that their movement's implicit ideology is an ideology, and a minority ideology at that -- just one among our society's many rival moral and political worldviews. The intransigence of the Occupy movement suggests an unwillingness among its numbers to take seriously the fact of pluralism, and the corollary impossibility of consensus, which makes majoritarian democratic procedures necessary in the first place.
I'm sure that Wilkinson must know that many of the public spaces OWS and its spawn have been occupying were already fully privatized when they got there, so I presume that "semi-privatization" is meant to be provocative. It shows just how unseriously he's taking on the questions the movement has been addressing. I could sort of agree with his remark about the "presumption that these often radically left-wing congregations somehow represent not only a majority of Americans, but 99% of them", though of course the Tea Party was even more sweeping and far more dishonest in its claims to represent all Americans. And I don't think Occupy's presumption is at all "disrespectful", let alone that it "suggests an unwillingness among its numbers to take seriously the fact of pluralism" -- very much the opposite. As for so many people, the Occupy movement functions for Wilkinson as a Rorschach blot, onto which he projects his own obsessions.

It's not for me to say (though based on this piece it's not for Wilkinson to say either) whether it's time for Occupy to move to new tactics and procedures, though numerous writers sympathetic to the movement have already been discussing such possibilities. But I think it would be premature for the movement to abandon street action in favor of "majoritarian democratic procedures." (I'm reminded of the commenter at alicublog who argued just before OWS took off that progressives unhappy with the state of our government should write letters to the Washington Post, a move guaranteed to put fear in the hearts of the Beltway elites.) Since the movement isn't interested in being subsidized by corporate donations like the Tea Party, and has a "healthy" distrust of the Democratic Party machine, I'd say it needs to build more of a base before it did such a thing. ("Healthy," by the way, is a word Wilkinson overuses in his piece; I speculate that it's to keep himself from screaming "dirty fucking hippies!" at OWS, but I could be wrong.)

So, where does this leave me? I think that our rulers do care about public opinion, if only because they need to know what to squash. We've seen that in elite responses to OWS, beginning with panic and proceeding to police violence. (I think that Welsh mistakes OWS' tactics toward the police, too. "Nothing," he writes, "is more pathetic than watching folks at Occupy who seem to genuinely believe the cops are on their side." I haven't gotten the impression that they believe any such thing: what I've heard indicates that they're trying to win them over, to remind them of their shared humanity, to remind them that the rich aren't on the cops' side either, to undermine the state's repressive arm. It won't be completely successful, but it might make a difference now and then. And since Welsh also advocates targeting the ruling elites directly, he knows perfectly well that the police are not the real enemy.)

For the movement, knowing public opinion can be useful too, even if it chooses not to be guided by it. But then, contrary to Wilkinson, the Occupy movement is the public. We're back again at the dictum that when the media talk about "special interests" they're referring to the overwhelming majority of people, and the "national interest" refers to a tiny elite minority. The "majoritarian democratic procedures" we have are currently structured to exclude the concerns of the majority of people; the question is is how, if it's possible at all, to make them more responsive. We didn't reach our current situation through the transparent working of those procedures, but through their subversion.

P.S. This episode of Making Contact offers an excellent discussion of the state of the movement. Listen or read the transcript. Andrew Levine has a very good analysis at Counterpunch, Democracy Now! did a story on the Egyptian elections, and the Daily Show (via) also noticed the curious lack of interest in them in American media.