How Radical Is Occupy Wall Street?

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A Democratic pollster conducted interviews to find out, but his sample is hopelessly skewed

Occupy DC - Molly Riley Reuters - banner.jpg

On October 10 and 11, an employee at Douglas Schoen's polling firm interviewed 200 protestors in Zuccotti Park, ground zero for the Occupy Wall Street movement. "Our research shows clearly that the movement doesn't represent unemployed America and is not ideologically diverse," he reported. "Rather, it comprises an unrepresentative segment of the electorate that believes in radical redistribution of wealth, civil disobedience and, in some instances, violence."

Here are the particulars:

Half (52%) have participated in a political movement before, virtually all (98%) say they would support civil disobedience to achieve their goals, and nearly one-third (31%) would support violence to advance their agenda. The vast majority of demonstrators are actually employed, and the proportion of protesters unemployed (15%) is within single digits of the national unemployment rate (9.1%).

Interesting.

But were the people polled representative of the Occupy Wall Street movement? Almost certainly not. As noted repeatedly by writers at this magazine, OWS is a fusion of street protest culture and Internet culture. Some Americans in sympathy with the movement are on the ground in New York City, but there are protestors in other cities, many more people accessing and participating in the movement via Facebook, Twitter, and email lists, and still more perceiving it through the lens of media, whether niche blogs or newspapers or TV broadcasts. What matters aren't the interior beliefs of the people in Zuccotti Park, the folks most eager to take to the streets -- they're not building Occupy Wall Street around their own views about civil disobedience or violence, they're explicitly trying to channel what they call "the 99 percent."

Call them "community organizers."

If the idea is to understand what all the people who consider themselves to be part of the Occupy Wall Street community believe, or believe it to be about, better to define them by their actual actions, the words that they chant, the content of the signs that they make, and the message they disseminate through the press and through the Internet. That is the movement. It is what shapes the actual agenda, insofar as there is one. By now, the vast majority of people who identify with Occupy Wall Street weren't there at the beginning. They joined up based on what they saw and heard, which wasn't violence, or even civil disobedience except in its mildest forums.

Many of them joined up after seeing the 99 percent Tumblr.

Says Schoen:

What binds a large majority of the protesters together--regardless of age, socioeconomic status or education--is a deep commitment to left-wing policies: opposition to free-market capitalism and support for radical redistribution of wealth, intense regulation of the private sector, and protectionist policies to keep American jobs from going overseas.

Sixty-five percent say that government has a moral responsibility to guarantee all citizens access to affordable health care, a college education, and a secure retirement--no matter the cost. By a large margin (77%-22%), they support raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, but 58% oppose raising taxes for everybody, with only 36% in favor. And by a close margin, protesters are divided on whether the bank bailouts were necessary (49%) or unnecessary (51%).

But the opinions of the people in the park, the opinions of everyone who identifies them, and the opinions of "the movement" are all different. What politicians need to ask themselves, as they decide how to respond to Occupy Wall Street, isn't "How do I related to the folks in the park?" It's "How do I relate to the larger movement of people who identify with what they think the people in the park stand for?" Polling data that sheds light on the answer will be hard to generate.

UPDATE: This is an interesting contrast.

Image credit: Reuters 


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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