Changing the Conversation?

Less than three months into the Occupy movement, its effects on public discourse are already being debated. Is Occupy changing “the conversation”—that is, the terms under which social and economic policy in the U.S. are debated? This conversation has been stuck in austerity mode for a long time. The Tea Party movement is only the most colorful expression of this generally rather dreary debate, whose outcome more often than not seems predetermined. It seemed significant, then, when, at some point in October, Occupy Wall Street “beat” the Tea Party—in Google search trends, that is. Occupy continues to beat the Tea Party on that measure. This is one indicator, but it should not come as a surprise that a movement with a strong online presence should see a high volume of search traffic. Does this online visibility spill over into the offline discussion?

Such spillover is suggested by a quantitative analysis of television reporting in one week in October as compared to a previous analysis conducted just three months earlier, in July 2011. The earlier study found worries about the deficit dominant, with virtually no mentions of unemployment, despite record levels of joblessness. Now, other economic concerns are on the agenda, presumably as a result of the Occupy movement’s actions. These findings are also backed up here. While this doesn’t provide evidence of Occupy changing the terms of debate, it speaks to the movement’s success at agenda-setting.

Surveys conducted since the movement has started making national and international headlines have found that it has widespread support. Such polls are cited by Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s labor secretary, as evidence for a change in public debate. A Quinnipac University poll found that, after one month, more than two thirds of New Yorkers agreed with the protesters. A nationwide CBS poll found 43 percent of Americans agreeing with the movement. More recently, a values survey found equal levels of support for the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, with independents slightly favoring Occupy Wall Street. These endorsements of the movement correlate with other attitudes. For instance, about two thirds of respondents think the government ought to do more to reduce inequality. But correlation still does not equal causation, so these survey findings cannot be taken as evidence of changing terms of debate unless they are put in comparative perspective. In fact, levels of support for egalitarian positions have long been higher than public discourse in the U.S. would suggest.

Dahlia Lithwick, focusing on form rather than content, wrote:

Occupy Wall Street is not a movement without a message. It’s a movement that has wisely shunned the one-note, pre-chewed, simple-minded messaging required for cable television as it now exists. It’s a movement that feels no need to explain anything to the powers that be, although it is deftly changing the way we explain ourselves to one another.

In other words, the Occupy movement may most effectively change the conversation not by setting the agenda and influencing what television reports on, but by refusing to engage on the inherently restricting discursive turf laid out by televised mass media. Instead, Lithwick suggests Occupy may be about finding new forms to voice political positions. Of course, the efficacy of such new forms is not as easy to assess as tried-and-true media formats. As Judith Butler has suggested, these new forms may be remarkable, first and foremost, for the spaces produced by a “congregation of bodies” rather than any immediate changes on a discursive level.

So, is the Occupy movement changing the conversation? Probably not, at least not yet. But it may already be doing something much more important: changing the grammar of political disobedience.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Leave a Comment