Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

#Occupy and the Longing for Public Justice

Stephanie A. Summers


October 14, 2011
by Stephanie A. Summers

The Center for Public Justice Guideline on Citizenship reminds us that “citizens share with governments the responsibility to uphold a just political community,” and that responsible citizenship includes “helping to shape the political community to conform to the demands of justice.”

I was reminded of this as I waited at a bus stop on Capitol Hill this week, where I encountered a small group of citizens outside the Supreme Court holding a series of letters spelling “OCCUPY.”  Soon they put down their letters and picked up a new series, spelling “SOLD OUT,” and began to chant, “Corporations are not people!”  For all the criticism of the Occupy movement, the Center’s Guideline on Citizenship affirms the necessary civil rights to free speech and association, “since they are two of the means by which citizens exercise individual and organized influence in society.”

The group gathered at the Supreme Court echoes the blog post that initially animated the #OccupyWallStreet and subsequent #OccupyTogether movements.  On July 13, 2011, the Vancouver-based anticonsumerist magazine Adbusters issued a call for the occupation and urged participants to form around one to-be-determined demand.  The “most exciting” potential demand at the time was that “Barack Obama ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.” This demand was said to “get at the core of why the American political establishment is currently unworthy of being called a democracy.”  

The fundamental problem, however, is one of perceived and real disenfranchisement in the political process.  Recognizing structural and cultural roots of this problem, the Center for Public Justice has historically argued that a right understanding of citizenship requires reforms able to “get to the root of the sense of powerlessness or meaninglessness that many citizens feel about elections and politics in general.”  The initial framing of the Occupy movement embodies that sense that our elected officials do not represent us, but rather are beholden to someone else.  It also highlights a common yet quite misguided understanding of the office of the president as the one person who can restore functioning democracy from the top down.

This is not to undermine the legitimacy of the potential one demand posted by Adbusters.  Back in 2001, arguing about the inadequacy of the proposed McCain-Feingold reforms, Jim Skillen proposed three principles that guide the role of money in politics, relative to campaign finance:  1) elected officials should owe more to voters than to the financiers of their election; 2) the pressure on elected representatives to serve the public interest should be greater than the pressure to serve private interests; and 3) candidates and officials should see and feel that their debt to voters and their obligation to the public interest are reinforced rather than contradicted by the system of campaign finance.  Ten years later, the Occupy movement is pointing to the fruit (or lack thereof) of reforms that failed to satisfy these principles.

Today, the Occupy movement is getting a lot of press, particularly as the first demand has given way to many demands being issued, in an effort to further many agendas.  While the desire to organize citizens to transform the American political system is praiseworthy, we possess a low view of our calling and that of our government when we merely present a list of demands to be fulfilled. A key implication of our Guideline on Citizenship is that “citizens should approach government not as the power that can give them what they want, but as the authority that ought to uphold a just public order for them and for all their neighbors. Government’s true function is distorted and degraded if government becomes a mere broker of competing interest groups.” 

The legitimate longing for justice must be embodied in our own work as citizens to establish a just political community, which is a responsibility we share with our government.  As citizens, we are called to engage regardless of the degraded condition of our citizenship and our government.  As Christians, we have a substantial obligation to do so for the common good, because we know what it is to be called to live faithfully and with hope in the midst of brokenness.

—Stephanie A. Summers is the CEO of the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”