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

Protest and Fulfillment of the Democratic Bargain

Timothy Sherratt


October 14, 2011
by Timothy Sherratt

From the breathless commentary on the Occupy Wall Street movement and similar efforts around the country, one gains the unmistakable impression that American journalism has lost touch with protest. Protests always seem to provoke the suspicion that an opposing interest must be manipulating the protestors. Grass-roots initiatives will turn out to be Astroturf. Someone, somewhere must be orchestrating the spontaneity. Last week E.J. Dionne opined that the Obama administration needed its own tea party because a leftist version of the latter would position the President clearly within the sensible center-left. So, perhaps we have him to thank!

Another common criticism insists that protest organizers double as fully-fledged experts with policy solutions at hand. Protest is not allowed to stand on its own terms. Take David Brooks’ objection that Occupy Wall Street’s us-versus-them frame will not help make education policy. What is this mania for turning protesters into policy wonks?  

If we ever needed evidence that the power struggle is a permanent feature of politics in a fallen world, the protests amply supply it. The young person strumming his guitar outside a makeshift tent engaged in symbolic occupation of an American community must be, it seems, either denounced or co-opted—the politicians pick up where the journalists leave off. So Rep. Eric Cantor could not, or would not, distinguish metaphor from reality in his denunciation of the “mobs occupying Wall Street.” Those who do not denounce, co-opt instead, as Vice-President Biden chose to do with his solemn intonations about bargains being breached and the end of fundamental American fairness.

Protest is by its nature more inchoate than coherent.  Open-ended membership of protest groups makes this more likely than not. Moreover, unwanted intrusions by professional troublemakers are a constant concern, threatening peaceful protest with acrimony, police charges, water cannon and pepper spray. But sometimes the inchoate conveys a simple message if we are prepared to hear it. 

That simple message is found in the meeting of free speech rights and democratic norms. Protesters see an alarming decline in their incomes and living standards. They try to bring those responsible to account. But they also seek from their elected leaders some sense of what the future will hold. To date, none of the candidates running for President, including the incumbent, have set out in any detail the fiscal pain their plans entail in return for the promised benefits over the long haul. Churchillian promises of blood, toil, tears and sweat may lie beyond their rhetorical grasp. And yet the elementary norms of democratic justice demand that the candidates make the effort. That deep spending cuts, new spending, or new taxes should be undertaken at a time of deep indebtedness and economic fragility calls for transparency. If the Administration would justify further investment of billions in near-term job creation, then they must show how an offsetting austerity plan will be managed and on whom it will fall most heavily. If Republicans favor deep cuts now for reasons of fiscal stability in the long run, then they, too, must detail the pain those cuts will mete out along with the other justifications for imposing them. It is not enough to say this or that course must be followed. All the costs must be laid out, along with the promised benefits.

Neither party has fulfilled this side of the democratic bargain.

What should government do? Follow Robert Reich’s advice to defer deficit management for the sake of stimulus in the short term? Address the deficit with vigorous measures whose immediate effects may do significant harm before they do the good they seek? These are stark options, and neither is such an obvious course to follow that the programs speak for themselves.

The people’s representatives should resist the urge to denounce or co-opt the recent protests. They should instead divert their energies to presenting the costs as well as the benefits of their preferred remedies for the country’s economic crisis. If they do so, they will have done justice to democratic norms and the common good.

—Timothy Sherratt is a professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.


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