What to Make of New Polling on Support for the Occupy Movement?
Opponents of Occupy Wall Street seized, shark-like, on a poll released this week by PPP which found that, in the words of the pollsters, the “movement is not wearing well with voters across the country.”
But that's a matter of perspective. In context, it could just as easily have read, “support for the Occupy Wall Street is holding up surprisingly well.”
The context is a relentless propaganda campaign to paint the movement in the worst possible light. As Heather “Digby” Parton noted, “nobody should be surprised” by the poll's findings given the intensity of that campaign in recent weeks.
All over the country people are hearing that the Occupiers are animals who are masturbating in public and shitting in the streets. The local news is luridly portraying the protests as hotbeds of crime infested with lunatics and drug addicts.
That stuff isn't disseminated just for kicks. It's done to poison the minds of the public before they have a chance to identify with the protesters.
This is an important point. While disapproval of the Occupy Movement has increased by 11 percentage points of support over the past month, its support has remained stable. The movement's favorability has only dropped from 35 to 33 percent in the past month, which is well within the survey's margin of error.
And its defining issues have not receded from the public's imagination. PPP CEO Dean Debnam writes, “I don't think the bad poll numbers for Occupy Wall Street reflect Americans being unconcerned with wealth inequality.”
"Polling we did in some key swing states earlier this year found overwhelming support for raising taxes on people who make over $150,000 a year. In late September we found that 73% of voters supported the 'Buffett rule' with only 16% opposed. And in October we found that Senators resistant to raising taxes on those who make more than a million dollars a year could pay a price at the polls. I don't think any of that has changed- what the downturn in Occupy Wall Street's image suggests is that voters are seeing the movement as more about the 'Occupy' than the 'Wall Street.' The controversy over the protests is starting to drown out the actual message."
And that controversy is being stoked every day by local officials and the media, especially the conservative media. In that sense, it should be heartening to the movement's supporters that, after two months camped out in city centers across the country, a third of respondents still say they support the occupiers, and fewer than half (45 percent) say they oppose the movement.
Americans also have a tradition of holding protesters in disdain, even when they are later proven to be on the right side of history. A Gallup poll taken in 1959 found that, by 53-37 percent, Americans thought the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, a seminal case in the civil rights movement, “caused a lot more trouble than it was worth.”
According to a review of public opinion from that era, only 23 percent of Americans felt that the Civil Rights Act should be “strictly enforced.”
"Most Americans told pollsters they still had doubts about the civil rights movement. In May 1961, most people (57 percent) told the Gallup poll that sit-ins at lunch counters and the 'Freedom Riders' would hurt African Americans' chances for integration. In 1964, Harris found 57 percent who disapproved of the 'Freedom Summer' effort by civil rights workers to organize black voters in Mississippi."
During the Vietnam era, the anti-war movement fared far worse. A 1968 poll conducted by the University of Michigan asked respondents to place various groups on a 100-point scale. According to John Mueller's Vietnam as History, “Fully one-third of the respondents gave Vietnam War protesters a zero, the lowest possible rating, while only 16 percent put them anywhere in the upper half of the scale.” Mueller notes that other polls at the time found that public opinion following the police riot at the Democratic convention of 1968 was “overwhelmingly favorable to the Chicago police and unfavorable to the demonstrators.”
The other significant bit of context is that the Occupy movement is very poorly understood. On its face, it is certainly a protest movement about rising inequality and the pernicious influence of money in politics, but it's also much more than that. It's also a social experiment of sorts – or maybe “cultural revolution” is a better phrase. Having spent many hours speaking to occupiers and attending maybe 20 general assemblies at various locations in California, I still don't have a firm grasp on what the movement is all about.
The occupiers have no concrete demands. They defy analysis based on our existing ideological framework. Sure, the movement's animosity towards Wall Street and focus on corporate influence over politics may warm the hearts of liberals, but there's also a significant element of anti-governmentalism that is more traditionally associated with the right. A lot of Ron Paul fans are involved in OWS.
There's also the Occupy movement's healthy dose of anarchy, with its near-obsession with personal autonomy. A big part of this Occupy thing is the process itself – the general assemblies are often frustrating, annoying and bizarre to those on the outside, but direct democracy is also a beautiful thing to behold in action. None of that complexity is captured in media reports.
In that sense, gauging public opinion about the movement is like polling on string theory – asking people their opinions of something the vast majority don't fully understand.
One thing that is clear, is that most of the occupiers see themselves not as "protesters," but as Americans engaged in a nonviolent revolution, with the ultimate goal of upending a deeply entrenched status quo. In that sense, perhaps a better question to ask is how public opinion about the Occupy movement compares to that of revolutions in the past, at their onset. There can be no denying that these people camped out in public spaces across the country have been an inconvenience for locals at times, and that may well be reflected in the polling, but revolutions aren't known for their convenience.