About six months ago, I wrote about the need for a new progressive political narrative, one rooted in possibilities and human potential rather than demonizing the opposition and shrill exclamations of failed policy. As we move into the fourth week of the now nationwide Occupy Movement, I think we may have found it.
Consider these words from Congressman Peter King (R-NY):
We have to be careful not to allow this to get any legitimacy,’ King warned. ‘I’m taking this seriously in that I’m old enough to remember what happened in the 1960′s when the left-wing took to the streets and somehow the media glorified them and it ended up shaping policy. We can’t allow that to happen.
Shaping policy. If you know your American history, you know the sort of policy-shaping that happened in the 1960s, courtesy of the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement and the anti-Vietnam protests, all things that most of us can agree helped move the country forward. When a conservative Republican Congressman grants such weight, seriousness and, ironically, legitimacy to the Occupy Movement, it means that we had better pay attention.
The Occupy Movement is bigger than anger, bigger than “dirty hippies“, bigger than class warfare, bigger than unemployment, bigger than million-dollar bonuses and trillion-dollar bailouts, bigger in fact than everything you’ve been told, and it could indeed “shape policy” for years to come.
The Occupy Movement is about the brokenness of our institutions and their colossal, collective failure to serve the needs of ordinary people.
It is not, as some pundits are saying, the left-wing version of the Tea Party. This movement may be rooted in progressive ideals, but its message has the potential to transcend partisanship and polarity, tapping into the very real frustrations and suffering of ordinary Americans – in the movement’s own words, the 99 percent – on both the left and right. Not unlike the narratives of the Tea Party, the Occupy Movement stands for the right of everyone to a fair shot at happiness and a level playing field, and in this sense it is unifying, not divisive.
Umair Haque calls it part of a Metamovement. I daresay it’s the beginnings of a great institutional awakening in America, the birth of a new political and cultural narrative that is not about left vs. right, tax increases vs. tax cuts, or who is responsible for high unemployment, but about institutions that were meant to serve us and the many ways that they have failed.
Movements cannot, for better or for worse, be sustained on facts and refutations alone. Movements live or die based on the narratives and metanarratives they weave and their relevance within culture. We are human beings, after all, not encyclopedias, and our understanding of the world and our place within it is inseparable from the stories we tell to ourselves and to one another.
A powerful, relevant narrative has long been absent from American progressivism. Occupy Wall Street is that narrative. And if it persists, it could change everything.
If it persists and if it remains nonviolent. I hope these are not big if’s, because this movement is a chance to do something great. To shape policy. I will leave you, then, with another quote, this time from Mahatma Ghandi:
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.