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The Highest Common Denominator

June 1, 2012
Slavoj Zizek speaks before Occupy Wall Street protesters Oct. 9, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Sarahana, The Parallax)

Slavoj Zizek speaks before Occupy Wall Street protesters Oct. 9, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Sarahana, The Parallax)

By: Christopher White

The problem with experts

As the movement was in its early stages, Occupy Wall Street played itself out as a living embodiment of the ideal of democracy. Zucotti Park, with its workshops on high finance and its improvised libraries, began to resemble the ideal of the Greek agora, a space where citizens could come together to freely exchange their ideas. The movement began to draw semi-celebrity thinkers and activists who spoke before the demonstrators.

One of the more interesting speakers was Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. While many in the occupy movement and The Left more generally tend to view the tea party as a stumbling block in contemporary American politics, he advised occupiers to see the tea party as a sister movement. Although he didn’t have anything positive to say about them, the crowd, using the improvised “human microphone” technique of amplification, was forced to repeat these words that they may not have agreed with: “don’t look at them as the enemy.”

Some could brush this aside with an easy cliche frequently heard when talking politics in DC that runs something like this: “the further out you go on the political spectrum, the more similar both sides become.” The subtext of this remark is that, if you’re not a pragmatic moderate, you’re crazy. Zizek, however, meant something else. The rise of populist movements such as these in Western democracies indicates an ever-louder rebuttal to the credentials of the political establishment.

Now may be the time to look for common ground between the tea party and the occupy movement if we are going to revitalize democracy at home. I think this is easier than many might think.

Tea party rally before the Capitol Building. (Photo courtesy of AP)

Tea party rally before the Capitol Building. (Photo courtesy of AP)

No party or organization has been able to fully co-opt these movements. They have remained aloof of any party affiliation while candidates for office have tried to speak the language of the disaffected. Some have wished these populist groups would stop forcing parties away from the center and even view them as the main obstacle to getting things done in Congress. Tea partyers are seen as pushing an extremist agenda to weaken the state and occupiers are seen as leveling extremist criticism against the economic system rather than a few malfeasant individuals.

However, these movements should be properly viewed together as a rejection of the managerial politics that dominates Western democratic states today. While we are constantly confronted with the “low approval ratings” of Congress, these ratings come with a pseudo-demand

for the governing body: “do something.” We fret that nothing is being done because the parties (or just one) are being too ideologically rigid and they should come back to the center in order to compromise on some “solutions.” The demand that Congress simply “do something” is a demand for more of the same, a demand that more and more Americans are abandoning.

This is the deadlock of our national discourse at the moment and it led me to think on an interesting portion of SFCG’s mission statement. Common ground isn’t identified with compromise. Indeed:

Finding common ground does not mean settling for the lowest common denominator. It’s about generating the highest. Often when people disagree, eventually they have to meet in the middle and everyone has to compromise. What we’re talking about is creating a new, “highest common denominator.” Not having two sides meet in the middle, but having them identify something together that they can aspire to and are willing to work towards.

When taking both sides of a discussion seriously, “the truth of each competing point of view can be appreciated” and we can confront the deadlock. Of course, the truth of both positions discussed here is that compromise has led to a stagnant status quo in which the average citizen no longer feels empowered. Those in the tea party and those in the occupy movement are finished with the lowest common denominator.

Some Americans thought they would get the highest common denominator simply by voting for a historic president. This has not been the case. Democracy, rather than a quadrennial function, is becoming an insistent call to reshape governmental and financial institutions.

Mainstream political discourse tends to speak of coming together to get things done as if our problems simply required a technical solution. As a response, many on the right have opposed the idea of “insiders” and career politicians taking the reins in Washington. They do not want someone to enter office with the intent of working within a system that many feel is not concerned with the needs of the many. There is no technical means of binding a people together.

This was the same sentiment that sent Barack Obama to the White House in 2008 but which has been consistently disappointed. Occupiers share this sentiment and this should be seen as a point of common ground. They are against the idea of industry insiders being given positions within regulatory commissions that  “oversee” and ease restrictions on the very sectors that enriched them. These were the practices that led to our current economic situation.

Rather than conceiving sweeping plans to draw Americans together as a people united in a cause, politics has become a systematized field of inputs and outputs to be measured by specialists. Policy, therefore, as pointed out in a recent article from The Atlantic, is executed by a cadre of professional technicians. As individuals increasingly feel divorced from this decision-making process, the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid” takes on new meaning.

Is democracy dangerous?

Many on both the left and right balked as the government had no choice but to give money collected from regular people to prop up institutions involved in irresponsible lending practices. Then, as governmental spending soared in an effort to keep credit markets from grinding to a halt, the specter of austerity set in over American politics. The bitter debate over the debt ceiling increase left the two major parties rushing to blame the other for the bitter pill the average citizen was going to have to swallow.

This, however, was a moment that could have been an opportunity for both those on the left and the right to come together around a shared problem. Institutional factors throughout the governmental and financial sectors led to our tipping point. It’s not too late to begin reframing these issues with an eye toward ending the finger-pointing and beginning the real work ahead.

Occupy Oakland protesters. (Photo courtesy of AP / Jeff Chiu,2011)

Occupy Oakland protesters. (Photo courtesy of AP / Jeff Chiu,2011)

Rather than blame each other for the downgrade of our national debt’s investment rating, we should remind each other what happened when this downgrade occurred. As The Nation pointed out last year, Standard & Poor, the very company that gave the highest rating to the “toxic” assets at the heart of our recent financial crisis, downgraded American debt because our politics had become too toxic. Here, we saw how financial interests interfered with our democracy because it wasn’t convenient for everyone’s spreadsheet.

The world over, we are being told that politics is too dangerous to be left to the partisan rabble. We are told that ideological purity is getting in the way of pragmatic decision-making but perhaps pragmatism itself, in its ceaseless mission to quell uncertainty in the markets, is responsible for the rise of populist politics. A better example of ideology would be institutions that are unable to see their role in popular discontent.

This is where the two major grassroots movements right now in American politics can begin to see in each other the mirror of their own disempowerment. Sure, the tea party sees the state as the enemy, not the economic system itself. However, this need not end the discussion. As mentioned above, it is easy to show that actors from the economic realm are able to regulate our politics and limit the freedom that those in the tea party want to defend. It is also just as easy to see points of agreement with the tea party on the role of the state in restricting liberty.

More government?

One such point for dialogue is raised by a hard-hitting piece from Barbara Ehrenreich on the governmental practices that impoverish those striving to climb out of poverty. When reading this piece, it is clear that the skepticism of the Right towards government programs is not entirely misplaced. Ehrenreich remarks that: “The impression is left of a public sector that’s gone totally schizoid.” While local and national governments offer safety-net programs for the poor, they enable large-scale wealth extraction from these very people through an onerous series of penalties.

Tea party protest in Freedom Plaza April 15, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Tea party protest in Freedom Plaza April 15, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

She details a list of minor offenses such as flicking a cigarette butt out of your car window, having a messy lawn, and even putting one’s feet on a subway seat where the perpetrators either have to spend time in jail or pay fines. These fines aim to generate revenue at the local level but tend to have a big impact on the poor. Those on the Right and in the tea party are frequently characterized as callous and unconcerned with the plight of the least well-off among us. A more productive way forward would be to acknowledge how many on the right support charities that provide a safety net for the poor rather than put their faith in some well-intentioned government agency.

Who is to say that the tea party isn’t right to be angry at governmental hypocrisy? Ehrenreich notes that, by compounding fines the indigent are unable to pay with other disciplinary actions like prison or the revocation of driver’s licenses, the state ensures that those below the poverty line are unable to work their way above it. Conservatives don’t want people to be poor. The Right is adamant about the ability of the individual to change their conditions. If the occupy movement were to leverage the tea party’s criticism of the state by saying the state inhibits this upward mobility, perhaps they could be convinced to hear what occupiers would have to say.

Dialogue about space

In short, what I am saying is that the debate over whether one should criticize the role of the state or the role of capitalism in the limitation of, at least, our subjective experience of freedom, is unnecessary. When someone demands you choose either/or, the only answer, the answer that brings both sides into a common task is: “Both.” These are parallel critiques that can be productively fitted together. Each one, hived off from the other, simply does not go far enough.

If we in the peacebuilding world are concerned with “creating space for dialogue,” we need to be sensitive to the reality that rejuvenating democratic participation and linkages between these seemingly rival movements now requires a dialogue about the space where politics takes place. It is a positive development when conversations about freedom in America shift away from a private enjoyment that wants to be left alone and put the emphasis back on gatherings that re-appropriate public space.

In short, the tea party and the occupy movement are trying to bring democracy back to the people and mobilize alternatives to the lowest common denominator. These two movements are the beginning of a search for what we at SFCG think is still possible: the highest common denominator. It’s time to start figuring out how to channel this energy in ways that will bring about real change rather than slogans about it.

Christopher White, Communications Consultant at SFCG, is a social media strategist and freelance writer with a focus on international relations and philosophy.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Nate permalink
    June 1, 2012 4:10 pm

    Excellent post! Honest conversation and debate are unfortunately not a big part of our culture. People seem more likely to ignore any valid points and complaints that don’t help to further their prefered agenda. Problems cannot be conquored until they are recognized and validated.

    • June 1, 2012 6:52 pm

      There may be a few issues the original 2007 tea party agrees with OWS on that are problems but our solution is freedom and sovereignty and yours is subjugation to the global elites and their socialist world government and neo-feudalism.

      So nope, it’s a no go.

      You won’t protest your benefactor Soros, the CIA advises your groups and you are well funded. The tea party is not.

      The fact that you are absent from Bilderberg conf. is telling.

      • Spencer permalink
        June 8, 2012 7:17 pm

        Most people within the Occupy movement are actually against neoliberal globalism. The establishment wants to keep the people fighting among themselves, dived along classic left vs. right lines so that we will never unite and overthrow our common enemy – the global elite you speak of.

      • Expatriot permalink
        June 8, 2012 10:25 pm

        We’re not absent. All of OWS is watching occupy bilderberg and supports the hell out of what you’re doing. OWS, anonymous; listen to what they’re actually saying rather than the way the mainstream media has painted us.

        Think for a second. OWS and TPP teaming up is the biggest threat to these jagoffs they have ever seen. Together you could actually change stuff. And both sides are mad about the same things. I realize that they pitch Soros as some liberal boogyman, but he’s got bugger all to do with occupy and they’d tell him to piss off if he showed up. There is no CIA advice because there are no leaders to advise.

        There are two possibilities. Either they have bribed leaders that don’t exist, given money to people who would NEVER accept it, and managed to corrupt an organization that is literally incorruptible, OR, they lied to you to prevent the right and the left joining sides.

        Which do you think would be easier?

  2. June 3, 2012 7:13 pm

    i’ve been saying this from day one! and people usually look at me like i’m crazy. but maybe they’re starting to realize that fighting with the tea party is exactly what the 1% wants us to do. and by tea party i mean the actual members of the tea party as i’m sure you do. the ones meeting in their local denny’s. not the billionaires who have tried to co opt their movement.

    and remember, just like the media portray occupy as a bunch of dirty anarchists they surely misrepresent the majority of the tea party as well. i’m sure some of them are racist, homophobic women haters. some of us are actually dirty anarchists (or at least think they are). but that is not the majority of us and i’m sure it’s not the majority of the tea party either. even if it was, we need to look past our differences to the things we have in common. even if we disagree on 99% of issues, if we can find one thing that we agree on and focus on that, we would cause a political explosion!

    we at think that one thing is money in politics. whether it’s from corporations or unions or simply mega wealthy individuals (of both political persuasions), private money in politics is the thing that has completely corrupted our experiment in democracy. our representatives in government don’t care what any of us think regardless of whether we’re tea partiers or occupiers unless we have enough money to make huge campaign contributions or pay expensive lobbyists. they can’t afford to. they have to cater to their wealthy benefactors if they have any hope of getting elected or staying in office. so they end up representing them instead of their supposed constituents. this not the republic that our forefathers envisioned! and this is something we all can agree on! :)

  3. Nate permalink
    June 4, 2012 4:19 pm

    Very good point Jarret. How can we expect politicians to serve us while they’re being purchased? This is simply madness. The Tea Party should be able to agree with that. Hell, I’ve even heard them say those words.

    Another thing that blows my mind is how we all KNOW what their strategies are, and yet we’re expected to support somebody with enthusiasm as if they genuinely care. We are told by news sources why politicians are taking a stand on certain issues when they decide to. We understand that everything they do is a strategy to win votes and raise money. So why then are we expected to be thrilled or enraged when they take a strategic stand on an issue? Obama’s “coming around” to support gay marriage is one of these baffling yet predictable moments (not to focus on a divisive issue). He even admits that he only came out in support of it now because his Vice President forced his hand. This happens the day after the vote in North Carolina about the ridiculously unneccesary Amendment One. And those of us who support legal gay marriage are supposed to be excited about this “historic moment”? This is like being a prisoner and praising the guard who finally brings you a loaf of bread, even though it’s been sitting on his table for 4 days and he could have given it to you all along.

    People who get excited about politicians these days are like professional wrestling fans. We all know it’s a show, or at least we should know it. But unlike professional wrestling, this ruse is actually hurting people. I guess we’re all supposed to think “i hope my guy can fool enough people to win.”

  4. bugs permalink
    June 9, 2012 1:27 am

    I agree that there is common ground to be found. If nothing else, I think we can agree that both sides are angry because they feel like their government no longer represents them. The whole “Red Team vs. Blue Team” mentality gets in the way of real dialogue, but if OWS and the Tea Party could get together and talk to each other about the state of the economy, and corruption in government, I think we’d find that we agreed on more things than either side expected, and maybe we could work together to get more done.

  5. June 15, 2012 7:56 pm

    There is no commonality between the OWS and the Tea Party at any level. One wants a utopian society and government that cares for you from cradle to grave, the other wants a smaller fiscally responsible government and a return to Constitutional values. One wants a communal society, the other wants a capitalist society. The Tea Party no longer needs to protest in the streets, instead we are putting up our own candidates and getting them elected. The OWS has yet to find a representative, other than Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi and President Obama, that shares their values.

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