When the Occupy Wall Street movement started in the fall of 2011, I had just left the US, to live in Uganda for a year. I remember asking my wife “Did we leave at the wrong time? Are we going to miss out on the biggest movement of our age?” The Arab Spring had sprung earlier that year and had peacefully toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, and Van Jones was suggesting that the US might experience an “American Autumn.” People power seemed to be on the rise everywhere.
Of course, we know what happened next. The Occupy movement was crushed in an orgy of police brutality. The Egyptian military co-opted the revolution, and would later free Hosni Mubarak. Peaceful protests in Syria and Libya would devolve into civil wars, thanks in part to foreign intervention.
But perhaps 2011 was our 1848. It was a year of widespread upheaval, and disparate popular movements, most of which were quickly suppressed, but which nevertheless laid a foundation. One of the mantras Occupiers around the world chanted was “This is what democracy looks like,” a slogan borrowed from the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle.
This seemingly simple chant has radical connotations, precisely because it is and was such a challenge to the US political establishment’s view of what democracy looks like. For one thing, ordinary people are not meant to be front and center; their role is to vote, every few years, for one of the two predetermined candidates for office. If they insist on being more politically active, they can knock on doors for their preferred candidate. That is what democracy is supposed to look like! Moreover, many respectable members of the establishments added, all those people getting together in streets and parks and squares shouldn’t waste their time protesting; if they’re unhappy, they should each just go get a job and work to improve their own situation in life.
But even after the Occupy protests dispersed in a cloud of teargas, the slogan has been taken up by the People’s Climate March, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, re-energized labor unions and lots of other social movements.
“This is what democracy looks like!”
Last week, the US got a glimpse of what democracy might look like in the shape of several important — and to some degree, surprising — victories in political battles that pitted well-connected corporate interests against disparate groups of citizens who lacked the money or political connections to get a hearing in the halls of power.
On February 24, President Obama vetoed a bill to fast-track construction of Keystone XL, a contentious pipeline that would send tar sands oil from Canada to Texas, and that has been the target of several years of protests. Although the battle over Keystone is probably not finished, this is only the third time in his Presidency that Obama has vetoed a bill, and the first serious one.
Then, on February 26, the FCC issued a ruling protecting ‘Net Neutrality’ and classifying the internet as a public utility. The FCC also ruled that state governments can’t prevent municipalities from creating a public option for broadband access.
There are particular circumstances surrounding both victories which would have made either of them somewhat surprising even a year ago. But more broadly, suspicion of (if not outright hostility toward) “the People” and by extension of democracy, is deeply embedded in the political fabric of the US. James Madison, the fourth President of the US, and author of the Constitution famously said “Democracy is the most vile form of government,” and many of the nation’s other
first aristocrats founders had nasty things to say about democracy.
Of course, those who criticize democracy aren’t always wrong. It cannot work in a culture of atomized individuals with no concept of the Common Good. And in the absence of love of neighbor and empathy for the Other, democracy disintegrates.
But this is why the campaigns for Net Neutrality and against Keystone XL were so encouraging. What was most inspiring about both of them was not the outcome — after all, even if Keystone is never built, TransCanada could build another pipeline, and Comcast may challenge Net Neutrality in the courts — but the way disparate communities came together and organized themselves. The Cowboy Indian Alliance was an example of unprecedented cooperation between Native American communities and mostly white farmers and ranchers threatened by the Keystone pipeline. And the fight for Net Neutrality brought together leftist activist groups, big tech companies that were themselves only startups a few years ago, and the very millennials who are so frequently lambasted in mainstream media for their political apathy.
Undoubtedly, there are still plenty of areas in the US where democracy seems a long way off –the private prison industry continues to profit from the US locking up its own citizens at a rate that would make Vladimir Putin blush, to name but one example. But last week showed us that real democracy might just be possible in the US, despite all the obstacles.