Occupy Wall Street's Image Problem

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Falling out of the public's favor, the  protesters should take a lesson from the civil rights movement and wrap their frustrations in the American flag


occupy with flag-body.jpg

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Occupy Wall Street is at a fork in the road. One path leads to political change, as the movement pushes the center of gravity in American politics to the left. The other path leads to irrelevance or even harm for the progressive project. 

"Unless OWS understands the power of symbols, the American Autumn will be followed by a winter of discontent."
For OWS, the latest opinion poll should be a wake up call. Early polls were favorable, but things have changed. Now only 30 percent of Americans have a positive view of the movement, and 39 percent have a negative view. It's proving too easy for opponents to caricature OWS as a hodge-podge of extremists and oddballs -- especially given reports of the violence in Oakland.

To succeed, OWS needs to Americanize the movement. Politics in America is like a game of capture the flag. The United States is a highly ideological nation with a clear sense of its history as a narrative arc. And the right and left get to battle over who will write the next chapter in the American story. 

Here, the model for OWS to copy is the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King understood how the game is played. Despite the best efforts of racists to paint King and his supporters as un-American, radical, and pro-communist, the civil rights movement successfully presented itself as the next installment in the great American tale. King deliberately reached back to the founding of the nation and asked that the country's ideals be extended to all Americans: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'" Today, even conservatives like Glenn Beck embrace King and the civil rights movement.

Meanwhile, the cautionary tale is the anti-Vietnam War movement. By the late 1960s, the Vietnam War was highly unpopular. But incredibly, the anti-war movement was even less popular than the war. The protesters were widely seen as un-American: rioters, desecrators of the flag, and advocates of amnesty, acid, and abortion. The protesters got a "reputation for being elitist, radical, and unpatriotic."

The anti-Vietnam War movement never captured American hearts and minds. When protesters and police battled at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, a large majority of the public backed the police. One poll in 1968 asked people how they felt about the protesters on a scale of 1-100. Fully one third of the public gave the protesters a score of zero. And only one-in-six people put the protesters anywhere on the top half of the scale.

The protesters helped to elect Richard Nixon -- not once, but twice. In 1968, the anti-war movement attacked the Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey as an establishment hawk indistinguishable from Nixon, contributing to Humphrey's narrow defeat. And in 1972, the movement was instrumental in nominating the ideologically pure but unelectable George McGovern.

To reach out to Middle America, Occupy Wall Street must present itself as part of the nation's story: as a rebellion against the concentration of wealth in a new aristocracy. The movement should get churches engaged. It should get as many veterans as possible involved. And the simplest strategy of all: Occupy Wall Street should wrap itself in the American flag. 

Compare photos of OWS rallies and Tea Party events. From a distance, you can't always tell that the leftwing protests are in the United States. By contrast, the Tea Party is awash with the stars and stripes. 

Overt patriotism can make people on the left feel a little nervous. But when the nation's symbols have such meaning to so many people, why cede the flag to conservatives? 

OWS should look to the Arab Spring for inspiration. Protest movements in the Middle East are extremely patriotic and flag-waving. The reformers claim to be the true Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans.

Unless OWS understands the power of symbols, the American Autumn will be followed by a winter of discontent. And the protesters can start by hanging a hundred flags at Zuccotti Park. One percent of the United States might not care about these symbols--but 99 percent do.
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Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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