Occupying Wall Street: Searching for True Democracy or Blinded By a Lack of Citizenship?

            The economy remains weak, with unemployment stagnant at 9.1%, and understandably Americans are frustrated, and not afraid to show it. A growing grassroots movement known as “Occupy Wall Street” has spread throughout the country, where Americans are protesting economic inequality, the greed on wall street, and the inability of politicians to create jobs and provide policies that are more egalitarian. Drawing from the writings of the Anti-Federalists, we see firsthand what happens when representatives elected are only the elite, and therefore cannot act in the best interest of the public. The makeup of Congress is disproportionate, where “almost half of members are millionaires.” The top 1% wealthiest Americans’ net worth is more than the entire bottom 90%, and it is evident that Congress caters “to rich constituencies rather than to the median voter, much less to the poor.”


As a result, we see the second step in Morone’s four stage cycle in effect, “people out of doors,” protesting the perceived injustices of the political elite and wall street high earners. However, it seems unlikely that the cycle will be completed and new political institutions will arise because those in power are not representative of the will of the people. Part of the goal of these protesters is to restore the participative forms of a direct democracy, and forcing the elite to recognize the “99%,” as those not part of the 1% who own a disproportionate amount of wealth have called themselves. Blogger Joseph Robertson hits the nail on his head when he says:

“Participation and transparency are antidotes to the temptations of unfettered power, elite negotiating environments, and deals that ignore the interest of most people and structure outcomes to favor insider interests. Participation and transparency are democracy; their absence is not.”

Here, Robertson takes a civic republican view of Democracy listing participation and transparency in political processes as necessary conditions for democracy to work as intended. Yet, it is my belief that the problem of income inequality and root of the protesters gripe can be better explained by turning to Judith Shklar’s work “American Citizenship,” primarily about earning being essential for citizenship.

There was a shift to the notion of hard work as the means for individual self-improvement and a high social standing, changing the Republic from “the old view of a virtuous public citizen” to one where “a good citizen is an earner, because independence is the indelibly necessary quality of genuine, democratic citizenship” (Shklar 93). Yet today, this does not hold true; the notion that “one [works] for oneself and for the community simultaneously” is simply untrue (Shklar 72). Because those at the top control an extremely disproportionate amount of wealth and are able to use their influence to keep it this way, self-advancement is limited for the masses despite how hard one works.

Famed economist Jeffrey Sachs points to education as a reason for this income disparity. Those with higher human capital have more employment opportunities, while “those without higher education and financial capital have found themselves facing much tougher job competition with lower-paid workers half way around the world.” Because most families do not have the money to send their children to college and graduate universities, they become disadvantaged to those in the top 1%. Despite how hard they work, without formal education, their chances at self-advancement are limited. This goes directly in opposition to Shklar’s assertion that free education is key for citizenship because it “was designed to democratize the young and to prevent aristocratic tendencies.” Yet, in this present day it is almost impossible for a great majority of Americans to achieve this self-advancement due to the lack of free higher education. Therefore, in Shklar’s view, many individuals in the bottom 99% are unable to fulfill her criteria of “earning” and are consequently not considered citizens.

It is anyone’s guess if this rising movement is pervasive enough to cause real change. Increased participation and transparency will undoubtedly create an atmosphere where politicians are forced to answer the tough questions and answer the 99% of Americans who feel their voice is being hidden by the power of money and interests. However, in Judith Shklar’s view, democratic participation will not create change when a majority of the American people cannot excise their rights as full citizens because of their inability to earn to their full potential. It may take a reevaluation of our priorities as a nation to promote an environment where working for oneself also benefits the community.

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10 Responses to Occupying Wall Street: Searching for True Democracy or Blinded By a Lack of Citizenship?

  1. hengk says:

    I think you had a lot of good points in this post, and I’m glad that the crux of your argument came out in the last paragraph regarding the pessimistic outlook of change. How timely it is to be studying Shklar’s Democratic Wish and its stages as the occupation of Wall Street is escalating! Even if I’m not at the protests, I feel like I can relate to the protestors (or maybe I feel obligated to relate to them as youth). But I think one of the simplest ways to describe the issue in the protests is from the first linked article, which stated, “Participation and transparency are democracy; their absence is not.” There is a lot going wrong in this country, but I wish Shklar could be here to pinpoint the absence of democracy. Because she’s not, I appreciate that our class will instead!

  2. udontempura says:

    After seeing what occupy wall street was all about during Fall Break, I have a hard time believing that is actually will incite any type of change. There are so many movements rolled into one, that the moment Occupy sets forth a concrete list of demands (and it has to be significantly more specific then “wealth distribution”) it will lose the majority of its backers. It will be interesting to see if a leader of any sort will emerge, and even more interesting to see if the movement will stay where its at or try to consolidate (and in doing so, fall apart).

  3. Justin says:

    While it’s tough for many families to afford an education at U of M, I do think there are more affordable options people take advantage of to get their associates or bachelors degree. I do think Shklar would want people to receive any sort of education, as a means to acquiring a job and earning. Even if these types of people aren’t making nearly as much as the top 1%, they are still citizens per Shklar’s definition.

    Further, I do wonder what a civic republican like Kemmis would think about the Occupy Wall Street movement. It is very clearly a rally against unequal wealth distribution and corporations meddling in politics, as well as a cry for participatory democracy. Yet, their lacks a list of demands or any clear route to getting things done. It’s like wanting to build the barn without going out and getting the wood and actually building it. Perhaps something will come out of Occupy Wall Street, but I don’t think there is any one simple solution to this country’s problems.

  4. bradenburgess says:

    I think that the Occupy Wall Street movement is a good example of a Democratic movement. To me, Occupy Wall Street captures some of the benefits as well as some of the downfalls of Democracy. What seems beneficial or good is that people are participating. People are not sitting idly by, rather they are taking an interest in the welfare of their country. The general disorganization of the movement, however, makes it less legitimate and less powerful. This general disorganization and lack of a clear, unified message reminds me of one of the frequent criticisms of Democracy namely, that it is “a rule by mob”.

  5. charliefilips says:

    Really nice post, it was well thought out and displayed an impressive usage of citations. With respect to the whole occupy Wall Street movement, I really like Justin’s analogy about trying to build a barn without all the necessary resources. I understand that the protesters are out to demonstrate their anger over the economic distresses that resulted from shady lending practices. This anger also stems from the sense of an unalterable disparity in wealth, between the 1% and the 99%, seen as being created by the major banks on Wall Street. I get all that. Its impossible not to be sympathetic towards those affected by the financial crisis. But what is the desired end all be all policy goal from the movement? If there is one, protesting without concrete objectives will not do anything, especially outside the offices of bankers working to maintain their social standing. The protesters have done a good job getting the issue of extreme inequality to the forefront of media attention. If the objective of the movement is awareness, then they are succeeding. However, I really really really doubt it is all about awareness. Economic Inequality is not a new issue, nor one that is unique to the United States. If protesters are looking for a quick fix they need to recognize there are rarely, if ever, quick fixes — in terms of policy implementation — for economic inequality.

  6. bjacobs25 says:

    I like this post a lot. You do a good job integrating Morone’s theory to a modern day phenomenon.

    I think it will be interesting to see how this “out of doors” concept will change in the next few years. Although Morone is not that old, his theory pertained to a simpler, older time. Social media has opened a vast, novel medium to spread ideas, instructions, and political ideologies. It has been instrumental in the organization of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. If Morone had the opportunity to alter or add to his paper, how do you think he would account for social media?

    I also wonder how Schklar would react to the movement. I think she would be supportive of the protests, in that it deals heavily with earning and working. She might feel that the “99%” have been slighted and are not, in fact, earning. Others however, Schklar might feel, are over-earning.

    I belive it would be interesting to see Morone and Schklar debate the effectiveness and conditions surrounding the movement.

  7. a15haddad says:

    It has recently become fashionable particularly among my friends to mock the Occupy Wall Street protests that have been running for over a month. Their protests seem to lack focus. They have been criticized for being too radical and for not proposing actual remedies to the concerns they raise with the US. A lot of people view the protestors as stereotypical whining liberals who sit around and complain about government not helping them enough instead of working hard. However, regardless of whether these claims are true, focusing on the protestors themselves detracts from the fact that the US actually does have way too much economic inequality.

    Since 1970, the United States’ gross domestic product (GDP) adjusted for inflation has more than doubled, from approximately $6 trillion to approximately $14.5 (http://www.multpl.com/us-gdp-inflation-adjusted/). However, the national poverty rate has stayed virtually the same over that time period, fluctuating between 12% and 15% (http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2010/09/the_poverty_numbers_you_should.html). This would seem to be a paradox; if GDP has risen so dramatically, then it stands to reason that the national poverty rate should have decreased accordingly. This paradox exists because, as the GDP has increased, economic inequality has increased as well. For instance, half of the income gains derived from the increase in worker productivity from 1966 to 2001 were received by the top 10% of earners. In addition, in 1970 the ratio between an average top executive’s salary and an average worker’s salary was 25; by 2004, it skyrocketed to 104.

    An October 8th editorial in the New York Times argued that it’s not the protestor’s job to draft legislation; that’s the job of government. The fact that the public has started a national conversation about serious issues is something to be happy about in itself. They are making their voice heard and therefore doing their duty as responsible citizens (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/opinion/sunday/protesters-against-wall-street.html?_r=2&partner=rss&emc=rss). It is now government’s job to listen to its people. I really like that point. Occupy Wall Street certainly has its problems and some of the criticisms directed towards it are valid. Ideally their protests would be more focused. However, the criticisms miss the point that the core issue the protests

  8. Robert Tepper says:

    I believe the main issue at hand here is lack of voting. Most “Occupy Wall Street” protestors are between the ages of 18-30 — the ages at which Americans vote the least. That is not to say that none of these protestors regularly exercise their right to vote, but as a whole, they statistically do not. So why are they upset? They feel they aren’t represented enough and their interests aren’t cared for. Maybe if they exercised their right to vote and at the very least showed that they cared about their own interests, they’d have more of a case. Regardless, the top one percent may out-earn the bottom ninety, but most of them worked for it. They went to top universities and worked their way up to success. As I’m sure your parents told you when you were younger as did mine, life isn’t fair. You don’t just start earning more money because you think the super rich get too much. If you want to make a change in your own life, look within. Look to see what you can do to help yourself before you go off pointing fingers.

  9. Kelsie Breit says:

    “Occupy Wall Street” is very clearly a hot topic right now on the political front. The devotion of the protesters is obviously very strong, and they need to be even stronger if they want this to actually go somewhere. The lack of a set agenda of what they want to accomplish as well as a way to accomplish those goals will definitely hinder their progress in actually causing a change.

    I enjoyed Justin’s comment about Kemmis. The civic republican ideology would definitely support the actions and drive of the protesters; the want for more political involvement to ultimately help the “common good”, which very clearly isn’t the top 1%. To be a civic republican protest, I believe that a secure stance with specific demands are essential. When Kemmis described his desire for participatory democracy, it was that politics be the main concern of the people. I took that as implying participation past just describing what they don’t like about the society, but how it should be changed and the ways in which those changes should be implemented. Without evidence and a new plan, how can the protestors really believe the government will implement their ideas?

  10. arullis says:

    I thought that this was a very good post. This blog post does a great job to show a modern day example of the democratic wish. How these protests show the struggle in our political system.Also, the comment above that talked about Shklar. These citizens are at a disadvantage and it is visible through social standing. I wondered to myself how Shklar would view these citizens and their citizenship. Is there some sort of difference because while they are both citizens we see that lawmakers benefit the wealthy 1% more. Is it possible that there is more than just citizenship because there can be different levels.

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