Netroots Nation and How the 99% Talk Hurts Consensus

For the first time since 2006, I went to Netroots Nation, as it’s held in Providence. There was one panel about public transportation, entitled “Saving Public Transportation,” whose speakers included Larry Hanley, who dominated the discussion; a moderator; and three political activists: including a local union leader, a Sierra Club representative, and a state legislative candidate who Greater City is supporting. The discussion focused on preserving bus operations rather than on expansion – in fact Hanley made the point that agencies expand capital while cutting back service because the federal government only pays for capital rather than operating funds.

Since the panel was entirely political, and dealt mostly with funding issues, when it was time for questions I asked about the saddling of transit agencies with highway debt; I specifically mentioned Massachusetts’ putting Big Dig mitigation debt on the MBTA. I wanted to see if the panelists would say anything about mode shifting or about the relative power of highways and transit.

Instead, Hanley, who took the question, ignored what I said about highway debt, and instead answered about refinancing debt at lower interest rates, as issue his union is harping about. In reality, according to his union’s own figures, the MBTA could save $26 million a year by refinancing debt; for comparison, its deficit this year, which it plugged with service cuts and a large fare hike, was $163 million, and its total debt payments in 2006 were $351 million, of which $117 million came from the Big Dig. Although the parts of this debt that are not from the Big Dig come from true transit projects, those were voted on by the state legislature, rather than by the MBTA; transit’s low position in the transportation funding food chain is thus responsible for 13.5 times as much money as could be extracted from the banks.

So at first pass, Hanley was pivoting to an issue he was more comfortable talking about, which happens to involve a fraction of the amount of money in question. But at second pass, something more insidious happened. Instead of answering a question about transportation priorities and getting state governments to assume debt they’d unfairly loaded onto transit agencies, which would require clashing with other departments with their own agendas, Hanley preferred to shift blame onto banks. He did not include figures during the panel and so I could not know he was talking about such a small amount of money; his explanation for focusing on the banks is that the MTA renegotiated deals with contractors to get lower prices, so it should do the same with the banks.

And after thinking about this, I realized how it shows exactly how despite appearances, the “We are the 99%” slogan is the exact opposite of any sort of democratic consensus. It silences any notion that there are different interests among the 99%. The auto workers and Providence’s carless residents are both members of the 99%; they have diametrically different interests when it comes to transportation. But in the Grand Struggle, the 99% must be united, and thus the leaders shift any discussion to the common enemy, no matter the relative proportions of the amounts of money in question.

After Scott Walker’s win, Matt Yglesias wrote that different industries have clashing interests just as much as labor and business do. But even within the framework of fighting big business’s influence, two of the most influential opposing interest groups, the union movement and small business, have different interests and are hostile to each other. Dean Baker wrote in The Conservative Nanny State that small businesses are being coddled because they pay lower wages and benefits on average; in general, the American union movement has not organized small businesses and supports the businesses it has already organized, and is hostile toward new companies, which are usually non-union. Small business in turn is hostile toward regulations on wages, starting a business, and so on.

The 99% framing papers over all of that. The voices that dominate the protests believe themselves to be the true representatives of 99% of the population, and by implication their own issues to be the most important. Other issues are subsidiary, or outright distractions from the primary needs. Any movement that claims to represent everyone is not consensual but nationalistic, and just as nationalism requires the elites to declare a certain archetype to be Real Americans (or Britons, or French) and everyone else to be one of many negative stereotypes, so does this 99% framing require movement leaders to coopt or downplay other groups’ issues.

Consensus comes from clashing points of view. The Swiss Socialists are farther left than what is considered serious liberal opinion in the US, and the Swiss People’s Party is about as far right as the Tea Party; they and the centrist parties are more or less in a grand coalition. The consensus comes from the realization that no single faction will ever dominate, and thus the best it can do is distill how it can advance its stated goals (poverty reduction, smaller government, greater national cohesion, etc., depending on the party). The Occupy protesters have very high supermajority requirements at their general assemblies, but they do not have this clash, this diversity in either viewpoints or demographics. They have procedural near-unanimity but not actual consensus governance, leading to a system that excludes most interest groups that comprise the 99%; unsurprisingly, the movement has severe problems with race, since its center is white and thinks it speaks for everyone.

Of course, within the union movement something similar is happening, with the dominant group being the older members. This is what New York-area transit commenter Larry Littlefield calls Generation Greed, spanning people of all political classes.

The end result is that no matter how much rhetoric is thrown around about new politics, forward-looking progressives, and so on, what ends up is a repetition of an old hierarchy, one with Real Working People and with fake ones. It has to; when it has no capability of dealing with tensions between transit users and other groups, or between whites and blacks, or between labor and small business, it cannot project any unity of the 99% otherwise. And without unity, it’s a movement without any clear policy agenda.


  1. Steve

    The “We Are the 99%” thing is populist sloganeering, though, deliberately framed in opposition to the current political ruling class as well as right-wing populism (the Tea Party)…

    But I feel you’re right about the aura of unification masking the clash of interests. Occupy Philadelphia, in particular, was never able to build a workable consensus out of its major factions, and so had begun an internal collapse even before the mass evictions early last December. This, despite the City being broadly supportive of their cause.

    The other notable issue is the structure of the transportation panel: notice there were no technical representatives. Instead, there were two union representatives, a Sierra Club guy, and a politician. What does that tell you about priorities? Union priority is always to get the maximum amount of labor per project, which brings costs up; had a technical guy more concerned with maintaining viability been on the panel, counterpoints about economic viability would have been feasible.

    In the Grand Scheme of Things, mass transit remains our red-headed stepchild; but, given the way things are headed, it really needs to become the centerpiece of our transportation policy. The coalitions and activism needed to bring that about, however, remain, at best, nascent.

    • Alon Levy

      In the setup they were discussing – preserving what there is and avoiding service cuts – the all-political panel was not by itself a bad thing. (Though, having Jarrett Walker there would’ve made the panel far more interesting.) I was mildly annoyed, but transit has enough big fish to fry that are not overstaffing; I deliberately asked about something that’s not meant to be combative with the transit unions. The dodge was what bothered me, even before I knew the relative amounts of money in question, because it tells me that Hanley will pick fights with the banks, but not with anti-transit legislators.

      • Nathanael

        Incidentally, the “pro-99%” statement regarding state abuse of the MBTA is basically “the state government should be printing money to provide this”.

        Probably too radical for the establishment. Every state government except Vermont has a balanced budget amendment, and none of them should. (To be fair, New York’s is completely ignored because it has a loophole large enough to drive an aircraft carrier through.)

    • Nathanael

      The reason for the 99% framing is that the disasters being created by the 0.1%, the top corporate CEOs and elite banksters, and the degree to which these are hurting everyone — including themselves in the long run — these disasters have gotten to the point where they are so large that they dwarf practically everything else (except climate change… and they have a hand in that too).

      Once we get rid of the stranglehold which the bank CEOs have over the world, we can get back to fighting amongst ourselves…. sigh….

      • Nathanael

        I will say that the ‘we are the 99%’ talk is practically useless on a transportation panel except when discussing interaction with banks, debt, taxation, money-printing, stuff like that.

        There was dispute about transportation policy within the New Deal; this does not invalidate the critical importance of the New Deal philosophy or framing.

        • Alon Levy

          The thing is, the Occupy people refused to talk in terms of a second New Deal. If they’d been protesting about unemployment and calling for more stimulus, I’d have been protesting with them. Instead, they protest about corporate personhood, or about generic change in the system. Whatever message there was about stimulus and unemployment was so muddy there are Ron Paul supporters in the movement, and people within the movement with left-wing inclinations who nonetheless sympathized with Ron Paul’s message. At Netroots Nation, the people calling for more stimulus, a higher inflation target, and a looser monetary policy were Matt Yglesias and other relatively moderate and wonky liberals; the more radical people said inflation is bad for the poor and complained that all this New Deal talk is just trying to fix capitalism instead of replacing it. (I was reminded at that point by Brad DeLong’s argument that the reason Sweden recovered from the Depression first is that its socialists gave up on revolution early and preferred to fix capitalism instead.)

          • Nathanael

            😦 You’re right about this; let’s see if the second round of protests can be more focused. Even the “99%” rhetoric arose from only *one of many factions* within Occupy, which shows you that Occupy was too big a tent…

          • Alon Levy

            Not for a while. The issue that could resonate with a lot of people was unemployment. Occupy’s first and biggest mistake was to not center stimulus and unemployment, the way European protests against austerity have. However, it was easier then than it is now, when the economy is marginally better. If there’s a double-dip then it could try again, but by then it’ll be too late. The politics that a demand for jobs programs last September would’ve created is a focus on jobs rather than on balancing the budget; nothing would be done until Obama’s reelection, but then a second stimulus would become likelier. (Possibly something small this year, if there were something popular.) With Romney, you can forget about anything other than more tax cuts, predominantly on the rich: tax cuts are both stimulus and small government, and other than the entire German political establishment, nobody really believes in actual austerity in a recession unless the other party is in charge.

      • Andre Lot

        I will take the current bad state of affairs and status-quo over some anarco-communist adventure of the “Occupy” style (which, contrary to the real deals done by he 1%, is based purely on rhetoric and unworkable schemes based on goodwill or “generosity” ) anytime for almost any issue.

        Even if the crisis were to worsen.

        • Nathanael

          You will. A lot of people won’t. Just keep watching the unemployment and poverty rates; after a while people will try ANYTHING up to and including Hitler rather than maintain the status quo.

  2. Jacob

    The occupy movement operates in a fundamentally different register than a Millian “marketplace of ideas” or a liberal pluralist compromise (where it is assumed that actors come to the “debate” with a relatively fixed set of interests). Rather, they are acting as though it is the _performance_ of unity that creates unity (and shared interests). One can disagreed with the whole conception of politics — and it certainly seems as though the long-term maintenance of this unity is difficult — but I don’t think one should criticize the movement for failing to achieve a goal that is different than their own.

    • Andre Lot

      The Occupy movement is totally doomed. It reunites a loose coalition of people for some reason or other oppose more or less the same thing (personified on the 1%).

      However, no actual concrete, workable, product of compromise (and thus necessarily not-purist) policy proposal have they come with?

      None, whatsoever. Even the Tea Party, with their misdirected anger, achieved more in that retrospect.

      The “spirit” of occupy is the very same of other movements who can easily congregate outsiders to oppose a common enemy, but fractures at the slight sight of a shot on actual power to change.

      The “overwhelming majority for anything” requirement is less a democratic instrument than a coveted mechanism to weed out any “internal dissent”, pushing more and more people out of the movement and ultimately leaving it with a radicalized, take-no-prisoners core. Which is, again, nothing new in the political prospect.

      • betamagellan

        I had a friend who was briefly involved with Occupy Milwaukee and we both came to the conclusion that Occupy was fine with being a sort of permanent countercultural protest rather than a broader political movement. There are nothing but upsides for its core group—never having any real power means there’s never any real responsibility, so one can continue to be lionized by their peers as a vanguard even if their actions lead to little. And, as you mention, there’s no chance of message dilution. Jonathan Chait,when writing about the Occupy Wall Street last October, argued that mainstream liberal interest groups should encourage the its growth because “the mere act of increasing the movement’s size would naturally push it toward the center — there are only so many Noam Chomsky acolytes to be found.” That, obviously, hasn’t happened.

      • Wad

        Andre, I’ll see your comment about Occupy and raise you about the American Left in general. I posit that Left movements are doomed as soon as they come into being.

        Take this advice from your friendly neighborhood cynic.

        The American Left has a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature and of cognition. Paradoxically, the moment the American Left does finally understand the fundamentals of human nature and cognition, it results in Self-destruction. Not in the psychological sense of engaging in detrimental behavior, but in the philosophical sense of a contradiction that renders the Self as an entity without a need or a purpose to continue existing.

        The fundamental problem: In order to maintain existence, all living beings must exercise cruelty and leave themselves vulnerable to cruelty. Living beings’ survival depends on consuming other living beings for nutrients. This is pretty much a universal given, as this has throughout time and across civilizations and disciplines manifest itself in texts and other cultural artifcats.

        The fundamental problem of cognition: Animal species are primarily driven by pleasure and pain receptors and dominance hierarchies.

        The American Left acts like these fundamental problems can be subverted, and seeks to build a movement and ideology that can transcend this baggage by not engaging in it. American Leftists desire to be broad-based, inclusionary, voluntary and non-hierarchical. That’s why they don’t go anywhere.

        Left movements succeeded elsewhere because they had to become their enemies in order to defeat them, and had to adopt Right-wing mind-sets to maintain the power they fought so hard for. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the first thing all revolutionary movements do is devour their young.

        • Nathanael

          Not really “right-wing mindsets”.

          You must distiguish between “willingness to be violent, exclusionary, and/or hierarchical”, which Woodrow Wilson and FDR and Carrie Chapmann Catt and Huey Long and even Eugene Debs had. It’s not right-wing per se.

          …you must distinguish that from “denial of reality and knee-jerk ideological blinkered reactions”, which is the essence of what passes of “right-wing” today — and close to what was “right-wing” during the French Revolution from which we get the term “right-wing”. (The Right Wing were the monarchists.) Left-wing movements do NOT need to adopt that mindset, ever. A few have, to their great detriment (Marxism comes to mind).

          • Wad

            You could also look at right wing as any political framework that seeks to protect the existing political social order against reformers or revolutionaries. That’s a definition used by Bob Altemeyer, the psychologist who researched authoritarian personalities. When he introduced right wing authoritarianism, he left himself open to charges of why he didn’t give any consideration to left wing authoritarianism. That was because, once a left-wing movement succeeds and builds a stable regime, it now fights to maintain that regime against all outside threats. Therefore, the Soviet Union was a right-wing regime within its sphere of influence when it endured beyond the revolution because it had something to preserve, even though it was a far-left ideology everywhere else.

          • Alon Levy

            I thought Altemeyer’s point was that in today’s democracies, authoritarianism is correlated with right-wing voting, whereas in authoritarian states it instead correlates with regime support. (A related point is that most democracies today are fairly right-wing in their toleration of dissent: left-wing protests consistently get attacked by the police more than right-wing ones, and one needs to go farther right than left to be categorized as radical.)

          • Wad

            American Left movements aren’t even at a point where they can comprehend a mind-set, let alone adopt one. The difference is, the left-wing movements that adopted right-wing methods put themselves in a position where they could act on their ideology.

            What’s the point of having a vision for a society when your team loses the game as soon as they take a field? Here’s a Left version of a football team: You have a coach that doesn’t know how to coach, players who don’t know how to play, and a mostly empty stadium with fans that sit on their hands and pay attention to everything else but the game. The team produces more sacks and fumbles than passes and runs. Worse, this team believes that it has an equal chance at winning the Super Bowl, yet they’d be lucky if they can even achieve a first down.

            There’s no discipline, willingness to adopt a zero-sum mind-set, a leadership or a followership. All movements require this. It’s just against the Left’s mind-set.

          • Nathanael

            “You could also look at right wing as any political framework that seeks to protect the existing political social order against reformers or revolutionaries. ”

            However, that definition of “right wing” makes the current Democratic Party in the US “right-wing” (since they are conservatives) and the current Republican Party “not right wing” (since they are revolutionaries). Therefore it’s not a useful definition for any practical purpose in the US. You defined “conservative” there, not “right-wing”.

            FDR sought to protect the existing social order *by* reforming it so that it was able to survive, rather than catastrophically exploding. That’s fundamentally conservative. Where does that fit into your classification? It doesn’t.

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