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Occupy the Heritage Foundation: How a Conservative Think Tank Aims to Rebrand the American Dream

The Heritage Foundation is clearly taking the Occupy movement seriously and not simply dismissing it like much of the right wing has done.

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The Occupy Wall Street movement has captured the collective imagination and inspired a groundswell of radical activity. This inspiration is so great that even the corporate media was regularly covering Occupy back in the fall. But that media coverage changed once the encampments were dismantled. The media coverage has either subsided or, in more recent times, has falsely branded occupiers as “agitators” and even “terrorists” (see Bill O’Reilly’s Talking Points from May 21 and May 22, for instance). But this is not the approach taken by everyone. On April 17 of this year, the Heritage Foundation organized a public panel discussion entitled “Occupy Wall Street: A Post-Mortem?” Unlike the dismissive and demonizing tactics of Fox News, this influential conservative think tank is seriously grappling with the Occupy phenomenon. Until now, there has been no response to the Heritage Foundation from Occupy or from the left. Philadelphia-based writer Matt Dineen recently interviewed Occupy Philadelphia member and “Rhetoric for Radicals” author Jason Del Gandio. In the following dialogue, the two explore the significance of the Heritage Foundation’s study and what Occupy can learn from it to ensure its own vitality and evolving relevance as the summer approaches.

Matt Dineen: The Heritage Foundation is clearly taking the Occupy movement seriously and not simply dismissing it like much of the right wing has done. In framing the question around the current state of Occupy, they do not argue that this is a post-mortem – but their project is committed to ideologically defeating this unpredictable movement. How can we begin to make sense of the Heritage Foundation’s strategy here? What is it that they are trying to accomplish?

Jason Del Gandio: My guess is that the Heritage Foundation sees Occupy as a legitimate – or at least a potential – threat to American capitalism. The speakers make frequent reference to capitalism, free markets and free enterprise, and often mention traditional buzzwords like individual liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Heritage Foundation is trying to understand the populist appeal of Occupy, and by doing so, trying to use that appeal to “win back” some of the Occupiers. Or, at the very least, to impede Occupy’s progress and win the hearts and minds of those who are still on the fence. One speaker, Ben Domenech, uses the word “persuadables.” This refers to Occupiers who, he believes, are still sympathetic to capitalism and the American dream – that if you work hard, you can live a happy, comfortable, successful life. Another speaker, Anne Sorock, is a marketing researcher and former corporate brand manager. She explicitly states that she wants to understand the feelings and psychological motivations of the Occupiers. Based on her research, she has created two categories of Occupiers – the professionals and the communitarians. The first, according to Sorock, is composed of long-time, dedicated activists and organizers; they are not persuadable. The second group is less dedicated and experienced, less concerned with political issues, and driven more by existential desires: they seek community, purpose and meaning in life, which Occupy provides. The Heritage Foundation is guessing that these folks are still persuadable. Such psychological profiling grants the Heritage Foundation – and other conservatives – the ability to rebrand capitalism and the American dream. After all, who doesn’t want to believe that the system works with you and not against you, and that hard work pays off? These are extremely powerful myths that help maintain the status quo. But things like economic inequality, escalating poverty, bank bailouts, home foreclosures, Citizens United, a clear lack of political accountability, disappointment in Obama and a general malaise associated to the corporate/consumer lifestyle challenge the American mythology. Occupy then comes onto the scene and acts as a conduit for these and other issues. Occupy is a galvanizing point that cuts through the American myth.

In some ways, we cannot blame the Heritage Foundation for taking up this rebranding. There is currently a crisis of faith in the American system. The Heritage Foundation is trying to remedy that crisis. But the question becomes, how do “we” as Occupiers, or more generally, as people who identify as left-of-center, respond? What can we do to continually expose the falsehoods and pitfalls of this conservative rebranding? How can we fend off this rebranding and expand the call of Occupy?

MD: These are important questions. Until this point, there has not been any public response to the Heritage Foundation’s analysis. Our goal here should be to help deconstruct their arguments in a way that can illuminate effective strategies for Occupy to continue to evolve and flourish, to help ensure that a post-mortem is not on the horizon. It seems impossible to honestly engage in this conversation without mentioning the Tea Party. There has been a contentious debate across the political spectrum since Occupy Wall Street began about how the populist conservative movement, obsessed with eliminating government spending, compares with this non-hierarchical and directly democratic uprising that began last fall. Is it instructive, at this point, to analyze the ways in which Occupy and the Tea Party are different, and also ways they might be similar, or are there more useful insights to be extracted here within the context of the Heritage Foundation’s attempt to rebrand American capitalism?

JDG: There are really two issues here: the Tea Party and the Heritage Foundation. But, in some ways, these issues overlap.

I am willing to give the Tea Party plenty of credit at this point for evolving into an influential movement – it got people elected into office that represent Tea Party interests. However, contrary to popular belief, the Tea Party did not begin as a true grassroots movement. First, it was financially backed by the billionaire Koch brothers. And second, it pretty much had Fox News publicizing its rallies and causes for free. Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity both broadcast live from Tea Party rallies, and Fox provided regular and favorable coverage of Tea Party actions. No other social movement in the history of the United States has had such a privileged beginning point. It is also important to understand that the Tea Party co-opted leftist strategies. While Glenn Beck would regularly rail against Saul Alinksy, he and other conservatives would actually use Alinksy’s tactics. In this video, Beck and David Horowitz openly discuss “inverting the myth” – that is, the right should start using the tactics of the left, such as die-ins and marches. Not only is it a quintessential example of Orwellian doublespeak, but it’s almost disorienting. They seek to portray the right as the underdog, as the little guy, as the marginalized and the oppressed. And such talk is not just in the Tea Party, but pervades Fox News. There is no doubt that the Tea Party movement includes regular people who feel betrayed by the system, people who live honest lives by humble means, but Beck, Horowitz, Hannity and the Koch brothers are not underdogs or oppressed. Much of the Tea Party is composed of white, middle-aged, working-class people. On the one hand, this population feels a genuine outrage about their lack of control over their lives – declining wages, traditional jobs shipped overseas, a lack of loyalty in the workforce, a general sense of insecurity, etcetera, but on the other hand, this outrage is also a subliminal response to their own loss of cultural power. While the “white male status quo” still reigns supreme, it is far less supreme than it was 40 years ago. America still struggles with numerous issues of race, class, gender and sexual orientation, but America has also made great strides. The fact that we have a black president and that we can at least talk about the possibility of same-sex marriage marks a huge (though insufficient) cultural shift. The slow erosion of the “white male status quo” is provoking deep anxiety, and the Tea Party taps into and channels that anxiety.

Occupy overlaps with the first part of this analysis – the sense of economic insecurity – but Occupy’s response to that issue is very different. The Tea Party, and conservatives and Republicans in general, want to slash safety nets and social welfare programs and want even less regulation of corporations. In other words, the solution to economic insecurity is to create the conditions for more insecurity. Occupy is by no means unified in its response to this issue, but it is safe to assume that the average Occupier would propose radically different solutions.

Occupy also has a very different orientation to diversity and cultural change. Unlike the Tea Party, Occupy welcomes and celebrates diversity, cultural change and erosion of the status quo. This is not to say that Occupy is inherently a bastion of diversity and equality. Unfortunately, there are far too many Occupy stories of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia occurring at various general assemblies and localities throughout the country. However, Occupy is a space in which these issues can be brought to the surface and discussed head on. In brief, the Tea Party seeks to maintain traditional cultural power, while Occupy seeks to create alternative relations undergirded by mutual respect and radical democratic practice.

This leads back to the Heritage Foundation’s rebranding of capitalism and, more generally, of traditionally conservative values. The Heritage Foundation wants to convince people that a socioeconomic system fraught with poverty, homelessness, layoffs, lost pensions, home foreclosures and grotesque inequality is the very same system that makes America great. It’s similar to Glenn Beck convincing everyone that privileged people are actually marginalized and that oppressed people are actually the oppressors. It doesn’t make any sense, but that is the power of human communication. Language, stories, narratives, signs, symbols, images and discourse inherently influence how we see, understand and even experience the world. That is the basic goal of all branding – to create a condensed narrative that evokes a particular experience of a product, company, person, etcetera. Wal-Mart, renowned for labor abuses home and abroad, is seen as a cultural icon of traditional family values. Mass-produced Starbucks and Apple commodities are somehow seen as alternative and even quasi-countercultural. And Barack Obama was deemed the next Dr. King even before he was sworn into office. That is the power of branding, and that is what the Heritage Foundation is seeking: a narrative that will restore faith in the American capitalist system.

MD: Bringing this back around to the Heritage Foundation’s attempt to understand Occupy Wall Street and this larger movement, it is worth noting that the Heritage Foundation also mentions Alinsky. But unlike Beck’s inversion of Alinsky’s ideas, Sorok turns to the actual text of “Rules for Radicals” to help her understand the appeal of Occupy and the movement’s potential power. In her remarks, Sorok quotes the end of Alinsky’s book: “The human cry of the second revolution is meaning, a purpose for life, a cause to live for and if need be, to die for.” This leads to her concluding remarks: “So as we look at the title of this event, ‘The Occupy Movement: A Post-Mortem?’, I think what you understand is that as much as Saul Alinsky counseled the people reading his book to not seek principle or policies, but to rely only on the exchange of power, this movement is about power.” How can we make sense of this analysis and, perhaps, turn this discussion around towards strategies for Occupy’s evolving success as a social justice movement challenging the status quo of American capitalism?

JDG: In some sense, I think Sorok is correct – Occupy is about power, but there are different kinds of power. As longtime activist and feminist Starhawk has stated, there is power over people, power with other people and power from within yourself. Occupy is obviously about the second and third types of power, and it is adamantly against the first type. There is also the book by political theorist John Holloway entitled “Change the World Without Taking Power.” Inspired by the Zapatistas, Holloway is asking, how do we change the world without re-inscribing the very power structures that we are fighting against? Similar questions have been posed by numerous traditions – anarchism, autonomism, second-wave feminism, etcetera, and French philosopher Michel Foucault once said that where there is power, there is freedom. Foucault’s point is that resistance is primary and oppression is secondary. You can only oppress people who are, by nature and to some degree, free to resist that oppression; power can only operate among subjects who are free to resist, alter, and/or change the power relations. Remove that freedom and you dissolve the very possibility of power. Freedom therefore precedes – or at least coexists with – power. This theoretical lineage helps us understand the power of Occupy. Generally speaking, Occupy seeks a world in which power is distributed equally among everyone, a world in which each person is empowered to make individual and collective choices. This kind of world is a direct critique of and challenge to the current world of top-down power structures. If this is true, then we must devise our own rhetorical strategies for communicating this alternative world to others. Occupy is already doing this, most notably through “body rhetoric”: general assemblies, working groups, the people’s mic, collective decisionmaking, sharing space and responsibilities, etcetera. The movement is the message. If you want to understand Occupy, you simply have to take a moment to think about what Occupy is actually doing.

However, this type of embodied rhetoric is most effective within the context of public occupation. Occupy must rethink its rhetorical/communicative trajectory if and/or when public occupation is no longer the focal point. Outside observers cannot understand what they cannot see. But again, this is already occurring. Plenty of Occupiers are discussing, analyzing, speaking and writing about what they are doing. These communicative labors can be made more effective by simply understanding that there are numerous audiences looking to Occupy for particular answers. Some audiences want to know what Occupy is all about. Other audiences want Occupy to explain itself. Others, like the Heritage Foundation, want to understand Occupy in order to co-opt its populist appeal. And still others want to be inspired and motivated to participate in this phenomenon called Occupy. But I agree with political scientist Bernard Harcourt when he states that we need to develop new languages – we need new conceptual frameworks that enable both occupiers and observers to understand what we are doing. New languages enable self-reflection and conversation. And realize the power of language – those who control the language control the understanding. This is what the Heritage Foundation is trying to do.

It should be noted, too, that Occupy is impacting American society, and perhaps the world. The Arab Spring, the Quebec student strike, upheavals in Greece, Occupy and many others are, in my opinion, all part of a new era of radical social change. The Heritage Foundation would not be holding investigative panels if this were not true. But this is not enough, of course. Occupy isn’t trying to provoke conservative backlash; that will happen, but that’s not the point. The purpose is to fundamentally change the nature of the American (and world) system – and that change is not something to fear, as the Heritage Foundation or the Tea Party might say, but something to welcome and embrace. It’s a moment of joy, hope and excitement. A new era of social change is upon us.

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