Protests in free speech-permissive societies are peculiar creatures. Consider this: Every year, the March for Life draws between a quarter and a half million Americans to Washington D.C. to protest the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling on abortion. That’s a massive protest, especially for a nation as physically large as the United States, with such a far-flung population. So, how many stories did you see in the news about the giant protest?
Chances are, you probably saw one or two stories about it, maybe a brief mention and a ten second clip of the annual protest on the local news. Why so little media attention?
Well, let’s compare it to the pro-democracy protests in Russia. After this spring’s blatantly corrupt presidential election landed Vladimir Putin back in the Russian presidency, the small-scale protests grew dramatically, and they garnered an enormous amount of attention worldwide. However, most of the protests consisted of only a few thousand people, or tens of thousands at most. While certainly not small, these numbers pale in comparison to the March for Life in the United States.
Why was there such a disparity in the media coverage of the two events?
There are a few obvious reasons. The March for Life is a well-planned, annual protest that has gone on for decades with apparently little to show for it. In contrast, there’s a spontaneity to the events in Russia, and pro-democracy protests are always appealing to Western media. Besides, Putin is a well-known international figure, and he usually makes for good news stories.
These reasons offer a partial explanation for the disparity, but I believe there’s a much more important reason why the Russian protests received so much attention while the March for Life was basically ignored: danger.
The Russian protests were dangerous. The Russian police beat up and jailed many protesters. Protest organizers and participants could get hit with huge fines. I don’t know a lot of details about the protests, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some people have already been killed. Free speech simply doesn’t exist in Russia. Stating your beliefs is risky in its own right. Participating in anti-Putin protests could land you in jail, or worse.
Nobody participating in the March for Life is beat up by the police, or arrested, or even fined. There’s no danger to it. In a free speech society like the United States, people get together with their neighbors or fellow political activists, plan a rally, get a permit, stage a protest, and then head home afterward, nice and easy.
Obviously, the American system is preferable. Still, it’s easy to understand why the media would gravitate toward covering the dangerous protests while ignoring the peaceful ones. There’s a certain gravity to violence; it’s always newsworthy. Thousands of people risking everything to stand on principle will always be more interesting than hundreds of thousands of people risking essentially nothing to do the same.
If protesting accomplishes little in the United States due to free speech, how can protesters make a real impact without turning to violence or property destruction (danger, in other words)? Allow me to pivot now to the two primary subjects of this post: the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.
Both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street changed the national discourse in recent years. The Tea Party brought about a resurgence of old-fashioned, limited government conservatism in America, while Occupy made income inequality a serious topic of debate among normal citizens as well as the political elites. Both received substantial media coverage at their outset. The Tea Party’s coverage likely came about as a result of its size and dispersion, disruptions at local town hall meetings across America, colorful rallies, and uniqueness.
As for Occupy Wall Street, it received substantial media coverage almost from its beginning last fall. The quick growth of the movement, its heated rhetoric, and its highly-visible tactic of physically occupying Zuccotti Park and other locations across the world brought much of the media attention. The media also appeared eager to portray Occupy as a liberal counterpart to the Tea Party, perhaps in order to place both groups in a simple and familiar “left vs. right” narrative framework.
A shallow comparison can be made between the two movements can find some similarities without much difficulty, but a deeper examination reveals little overlap both politically and organizationally. I’ll skip the political views of each movement for the purposes of this post, but the organizational differences are important to my broader point. Both movements began leaderless, with only a couple of inspirational figures at first (Elizabeth Warren for Occupy, Rick Santelli for the Tea Party).
This is where their paths diverge. The Tea Party quickly organized into local, state, regional, and national chapters while accumulating many leaders in the movement, including Representative Ron Paul (R-TX), Matt Kibbe, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN). None of them “controlled” the movement, but they helped rally and give voice to the Tea Party’s goals and beliefs. The combination of strong organization and a measure of leadership gave the Tea Party direction and lasting power.
Occupy Wall Street feared from the start that existing liberal groups and leaders would try to co-opt the movement. Even when progressive icons such as Michael Moore simply tried to align themselves with Occupy, they were largely disdained. The pure egalitarianism of the movement made organization extremely difficult on a local or national level, and leadership was nearly nonexistent. An easy-to-understand slogan (We are the 99%) and physical occupation helped to overcome these difficulties early on, but the movement rapidly faded once the slogans grew tired and the occupiers were forced to leave. Even though Occupy may have held common beliefs, the public at large perceived them as confused and directionless, and most people have already written off Occupy as a force in American politics.
Finally, I’ll get to my point: In a free speech-permitting society such as the United States, even huge protests such as the March for Life or broad movements such as Occupy Wall Street aren’t enough to draw lasting attention or to create significant change. In Russia, where free speech is so harshly punished, the inherent danger in protesting makes the act itself much more effective. However, in the United States, you have to translate your speech into action. The Tea Party has done that and continues to do that, while Occupy Wall Street has not.
In 2010, the Tea Party rocked the voting booth, sweeping in a massive, historic wave of new conservative Members of Congress, let alone the hundreds or thousands of state and local Tea Party officials who were elected.
The momentum continued this year, with the Tea Party experiencing several major victories already. Richard Mourdock defeated long-time Senator Dick Lugar in the Indiana GOP Senate primary and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker handily defeated Democratic challenger Tom Barrett to survive his recall election. GOP establishment-backed David Dewhurst was forced into a runoff election with conservative Ted Cruz in the Texas GOP Senate primary. There are many, many more examples of electoral victories for the Tea Party since its beginning, but I only intended to give a sampling, not an exhaustive list.
Who has Occupy Wall Street elected? It’s a meager list. A few candidates who aligned themselves with Occupy managed to get elected on the state and local level. Former MoveOn.org organizer Ilya Sheyman called himself an Occupy candidate while running for a congressional seat in Illinois, but lost, and his Occupy credentials were sketchy regardless. George Martinez, an Occupier who ran for Congress in New York, failed to net even a thousand votes. Outside of Elizabeth Warren’s Senate campaign in Massachusetts, there doesn’t appear to be many (if any) legitimate Occupy candidates on the horizon, particularly on the federal level, and even Warren’s odds only appear to be about 50/50. While it’s true that Occupy Wall Street hasn’t been around for as long as the Tea Party, the Occupy movement has already appeared to lose most of its momentum, so I doubt that there will be many more self-proclaimed Occupy candidates in the future.
To summarize, free speech in the United States has diluted the value of protests. Therefore, protestors much transform their protests into organized movements in order to effect electoral change and to accomplish their goals. While the Tea Party successfully managed to transform from an outpouring of conservative anger and frustration into a potent, nationwide political force, Occupy Wall Street is teetering on the brink of irrelevancy. Occupy’s outright hostility to hierarchy and the apathy many Occupiers feel toward the electoral process may ensure the movement’s demise. If Occupy Wall Street’s remaining organizers hope to salvage something from their dying movement, their best hope is to take a page out of the Tea Party’s playbook.