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.)
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.
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?
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.
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?