The National Conversation

One of the points frequently made about Occupy Wall Street is that it has shifted the national conversation by putting income inequality and financial deregulation back on the table. At the same time, one of the most inspiring things about the actual site of Zuccotti Park, and the other Occupy encampments, has been their creation of a forum for open conversation about issues of local and national policy.

But what is the national conversation? Where does it take place? Whose voices are involved? Today I want to ask: Could expanding the national conversation become a focal point for political mobilization? Could activists mobilize around a clear articulation of the need for a more open, engaged, diverse national conversation? Could this be a way to bridge constituencies that currently have a hard time talking to one another?

As a rhetorical strategy, the idea of expanding the national conversation is double-edged. It encourages us to pull back from direct, explicitly partisan mobilization, and to look instead for more “neutral” (read: widely acceptable) ways of framing the issues. At the same time, it also takes for granted the idea that “more” conversation on such issues will ultimately mean “better” conversation.

(When OWS puts income inequality on the table, we assume that this is a push in the direction of less inequality, since current norms don’t allow an explicit argument for greater inequality. Those who want to bolster inequality have to reframe the issue, for example by shifting to a conversation about “job creation” — also something that can’t be explicitly rejected in the current political climate.)

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Yet I think there is a lot to be said for this kind of strategy, especially in this moment, when the national conversation in the U.S. is operating on a very shallow level, with little substantive debate and much divisive sound-biting. Is this the best we can do?

It bothers me, for example, when my political comrades describe our country as if it consisted of three constituencies: left-wing voters, left-wing leaders, and right-wing leaders. It’s as if they forget all about the right-wing voters, the people who actually vote for and support Romney and Perry and Gingrich. Then they turn around and say: The politicians are ignoring the will of the people! I don’t hear enough activists on my side of the spectrum talking about what motivates Republican voters.

2008 Electoral Map

Of course, gerry-mandering and voter suppression are real. There are all kinds of problems built into the system. To some extent, the politicians are ignoring the will of the people. But we do still hold elections, and plenty of people participate in them — and, of those people, plenty are voting for right-wing candidates. The Republican party has a strong electoral basis in social conservatism and religious fundamentalism. I don’t see how we can hope to change or understand the current situation nationally without taking that into account. And that means framing the national debate to include the issues that mobilize those communities alongside our own.

So: How do we open up the conversation?

Image Credit: Scoop NZ

Sometimes it seems as if presidential debates are just about the only time when a national conversation actually takes place. There, campaign finance reform is a central issue, and already a main focus of political activism. But I usually hear this issue framed in terms of who gets elected, as if the only purpose of presidential elections were to find out which of two parties will hold power for the next four years. Shouldn’t presidential debates be the highest level of national conversation? Shouldn’t they be supported by a layered, systemic national conversation that continues throughout all phases of the election cycle? Isn’t campaign finance reform really about trying to make the presidential contest less of what Brian Lehrer calls a “horse race” and more of a substantive conversation on national issues?

In short, I don’t think it’s enough right now to mobilize on specific issues. The bill that just passed in the Senate is a good example: It’s terrifying. But even more terrifying is the fact that we have arrived at a moment where such a bill can pass without significant national debate. There are only so many petitions that one can sign against specific bills that most people in the country have never even heard of. I am yearning for a longer-term view of politics, for a vision of the future that goes beyond slowing or preventing the slide toward authoritarianism.

Photo Credit: Cover Lay Down

And so I wonder:

  • What if expanding the national conversation became the explicit platform of a social movement or political party? What kinds of implications (for campaign finance reform, for education, for civil rights, for financial regulation) could be woven into an argument for more open and thorough debate?
  • What kind of articulate challenges could be put forth in terms of how actually to accomplish this expansion? What type of debates, conversations, forums, round tables, symposia, performances, and educational programs would support such an expansion? What kinds of institutions and media are best situated to accomplish this? What kinds of pressure could cause them to do so?
  • And finally: Is there a special role here for education and academia? (Here’s a challenge for intellectuals to support OWS. And here’s a proposal to shed light on how politicians interact with experts in relevant fields.) How can we counter the spinning of higher education as an elitist club? What are the real systems that can raise the level of public debate and get people interested in the national conversation?


  1. Jonathan Stillo says:

    This is very interesting. You are right, the national conversation is in a pretty sad state right now. On your last point, the role of intellectuals in all of this, I have some pretty strong feelings. I come from a working class background and neither of my parents went to college. When I write something, I try to write it in a way that my mother, a very intelligent but not university educated person, can understand. As I walk through the halls of the Graduate Center and read what comes out of my own discipline, anthropology, I think: No wonder nobody listens to us. We are not even speaking a language the general public can understand. It is all “biosociality”,imaginaries”, and “subjectivities”. Recently a CUNY prof. gave a lecture at the Graduate Center’s “Multi-Species Salon” who has done “multi-species ethnography” that involved watching house cats eat chili peppers. You can’t make this stuff up.

    Most intellectuals, even at an ostensibly ‘working class’ institution like CUNY have completely lost their ability to speak to the general public. One reason why the anti-intellectualism of the Right is so effective is that they are not entirely incorrect. Being relevant to the masses is not a top priority for many in academia today. I see a role for intellectuals in the occupy movement and whatever grows from it, but only if we are willing to seriously try to make our research and our language useful and relevant to the 99%, rather than the minority of people who even know what imaginaries and subjectivities actually are. Presently, we are not speaking in a language that the educated public can understand, even those who share our political and moral viewpoints. If we can’t talk to them, how are we ever going to cross the divide to have civil, productive conversations with the conservative general public?

  2. Ben Spatz says:


    While I completely agree with the basic orientation of your post, I’d like to say something in defense of specialized language and terminology. Like you, I think it’s vital that the national conversation be recentered around the working class and the 99%. But as someone writing a theoretical dissertation (rather than a historical or ethnographic one), I can’t accept any simple call to easily comprehensible language. As much as we talk about different registers of language, and the need to include dialects and slang alongside formal prose, I also think there is a proper place for specialized theoretical languages in politics.

    As I wrote in a previous post on specialized knowledge, the fact that knowledge often colludes with power doesn’t mean they are the same thing. I would add to this that knowledge in its germinal state (as it is being born or discovered) is not the same as the uses to which it can later be put. To take a mundane example: We all use cell phones, but almost none of us know how to build one. So the knowledge of how to make cell phones benefits us, not because we understand it directly, but through the medium of technology.

    In the same way, the direct reading and understanding of theoretical texts is not the only way to be affected by them. My scholarly writing draws on people like Pierre Bourdieu and Judith Butler. (Probably Marx is an even better example.) Plenty of people read texts by these authors and call them nonsense. But if I read a technical document on the engineering of cell phones, I’m sure I would also find it meaningless. The same person who calls Butler’s work “nonsense” may not even realize that her work has indirectly affected their idea of gender. I’d like to allow for specialized knowledge in this sense.

  3. Jonathan Stillo says:

    I agree, there is a place for specialized knowledge in academia. But if we cannot explain that knowledge in terms that regular people can understand then we are rendering ourselves irrelevant. I am skeptical that all the folks who throw the latest theoretical fetishes around could explain them in a way that my parents could understand. I also think that a good engineer really could explain to me how a cell phone works. The problem is that no one expects them to and there is no institutional encouragement for them to be able to do so. I bet that you could break down your theoretical approach to a nonacademic. I know I spend a lot of time doing it. I’m just troubled that it is not a priority in the academy to go through the effort to make the specialized knowledge knowable to ordinary (for lack of a better word) people–as if that would make it less special…

    Ultimately, if left-leaning intellectuals are going to be relevant to a social movement, there is a need to make the academic voice intelligible.

  4. Ben Spatz says:


    I agree, and I wonder if the relationship between “research” and “teaching” in academia is another useful way to frame this. While some great thinkers are also great teachers, I suspect that there are also plenty of brilliant engineers who are not especially good at or interested in explaining their ideas to a general audience. Rather than suggest that they are failing in some way by not doing so, I’d prefer to mobilize for more greater emphasis on teaching and pedagogy, so that those who disseminate specialized knowledge receive as much as respect and support as those who produce it.


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