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Occupying the Conventions? How Protests Will Change Politics-as-Usual in 2012

Four years after the moment of "hope and change," the 99% is set to alter the dynamics of presidential elections.

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Captured Narratives

I remember that year of narrative-scrubbing well. It was everywhere, but particularly focused on then-nominee Barack Obama. Obama's neoliberal leanings in Illinois were well-understood. They showed via his pivotal support of Joe Lieberman in 2006, his participation in Bob Rubin's Hamilton Project, and his backing of the education privatization group Democrats for Education Reform. Most prominently  he explicitly lied about his position on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the bill that immunized telecommunications companies from prosecution against illegal wiretapping. After pledging to oppose such a bill during the primary while under pressure from liberal voters, he voted for it after such pressure had lifted in the general.

Those parts of Obama’s record were excluded from the liberal narrative so he could become a candidate of hope and change, and then execute the policy framework to protect the banks that had been the initial investors in his presidential ambitions. This wasn't particularly secretive, much as Goodman's arrest reached a million views on YouTube yet was broadly ignored by the press. It was part of what Jay Rosen calls the “sphere of deviance,” or the “set of political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of society reject as unworthy of being heard.” 

A Different Kind of Year

There are signs that 2012 may be a different kind of year.

For starters, we can expect significant protests at the party conventions, and this time, I suspect the press will pay attention. Political conventions are the center of political discourse in America. From 1980 to 2008, stale, corporate political infomercials matched the stale, corporate political state of our politics. The lavish spreads of food and drink, the heavy credentialing and associated social climbing, VIP rooms within VIP rooms, hustlers, groupies, hacks and lobbyists, delegates and party regulars -- all of it will represent the dominance of the 1%. The two- to four-day festivals of scripted schwag-infested boredom will remain as stale as they always were, but the exciting bit, the real debates over how our culture will be organized, will be in the streets.

In drawn-out presidential primaries, commentators often yearn for the excitement of an old-school political convention, where the outcome is not preordained. Will we have a brokered convention? How will the party platform be crafted? What are the factions? These questions are like catnip to insiders, and they do facilitate a debate about the country’s future. In 2012, it’s likely that the debate at the conventions will show up not in the convention halls, but in the clash between domestic security forces and protesters opposing the political forces inside the convention halls. Americans increasingly view the political system as broken and lacking in legitimacy– the latest numbers show Congress with a 9% approval rating. They will not be electing delegates to make their voices heard. If they show up at all, it will be to put their bodies on the line to do so.

We're going to see what happens when the cultural resonance of Occupy meets the increasingly militarized federal, state and local apparatus. Already, Tampa Bay Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat, has made his attitude about Republican National Convention protesters clear: "These are people who are committed to mayhem, and if we're not careful they will incite it." This characterization of protesters as an existential threat justifies security spending on new weapons, which, in at a time of state and municipal budget woes, must then be used so that the money looks well-spent. The city has a municipal police tank, and initially considered buying predator drones. Instead it will spend much of its $55 million of extra security money on state-of-the-art surveillance systems.