Why Are Modern Populist Movements So Ineffective?

Why Are Modern Populist Movements So Ineffective?

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek once said that Ghandi was more violent than Hitler. His thesis centered on Ghandi's successful use of civil disobedience as a way of breaking British colonialism in India, and Hitler's failed attempt to shape the world through violence in Europe. Using Zizek's model, a case can be made that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was more violent than the rioters who hijacked the peaceful demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. 2014 was a year that saw populist movements take their grievances to the streets (or the ranch in the case of  Cliven Bundy's supporters). What's become obvious to me over the last few years is that many of these left wing and right wing populist movements, dating back to Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, aren't as far apart ideologically as they are thought to be.

The sadder connection they share is that they have been ineffective in using the momentum and spotlight they've garnered to cause a fundamental shift in the status quo.  The right wing, Tea Party and Bundy supporters have ditched their anti-government rhetoric and replaced it with patriotic flag waving. They have adopted wholesale condemnation of those on the left who have taken to the streets protesting grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri (over the killing of Mike Brown), and New York City (over stop-and-frisk and the killing of Eric Garner). The symbolic order of their protest was reversed. Their reflexive hatred of President Obama provided cover for their deeply treasonous behavior. As long as the face of government tyranny was the president, their cause had life; The minute a police uniform was the symbol of state sponsored oppression their focus shifted.

These contradictions work at a deeper level. The populist right wing anger against the government uses President Obama as its symbol of tyranny. The symbolic use of the president as the embodied manifestation of the "other" is unifying to many who see their actions as patriotic. The fact that people still question his citizenship, religion, sexuality, and patriotism are symptomatic of his otherness. The positions many on the right took against the government weren't based on any macro level or systemic changes. The acronym Taxed Enough Already is a testament to the level of hypocrisy built into their movement. When the president signed his stimulus package into law he actually lowered taxes for the majority of Americans. Using this logic, the armed men and women who migrated to Cliven Bundy's ranch weren't pointing guns at federal agents, but at a president they didn't like or respect.

The fact that the Nevada incident didn't end in a Ruby Ridge or Waco style massacre was twofold: on one hand the professionalism and calm of the agents on the scene diffused a situation that escalated rapidly, but on a deeper and perhaps subconscious level the fact that the majority of the protesters were white bought them the kind of leeway armed minorities are rarely if ever afforded.  Before the killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner several prominent religious leaders, public intellectuals and civil rights activists called for massive protests of the NYPD's use of stop-and frisk.

October was a month that was set aside for protests, and though several of these events saw hundreds of people participate in them, they went largely ignored. It took a small group of looters to force the nation to engage in the dialogue that the protesters were trying to have. Even as I write this our efforts are failing. Every time there's a challenge to the legitimacy of the practices used to police minority communities, the official response from the state is to appoint someone to investigate the matter: as if we don't already know what happened.

The senseless killings of NYPD officers Ramos and Liu further complicate matters. Those who seek to discredit and ignore the veracity of the claims made by protesters have used the actions of a mentally disturbed man and those looting to shift the focus of the conversation. We will fail to get the changes we're seeking. Sooner than later the nation's attention will shift to something else and our apathetic nature will take over. The biggest reason for our failure will be our unwillingness to sacrifice. I support and endorse a systematic and long-term boycott. Too many inside of our movement aren't willing to exercise the leverage we have. It was a boycott of the bus system in 1956 that lead to the integration of public transportation in the south; a strategy South Africans used in Pretoria, in 1957.

The blue print is out, but too few are willing to follow it.  If I had my way our boycott would work as follows: for 60 days no one would purchase any fast food, a week after that no one would go to the movies, amusement parks, or professional sporting events for 60 days, the following week we would boycott Coca Cola, Frito Lay, and General mills for 60 days, then we would boycott all alcohol and tobacco products for 60 days. A month into our boycott we would have everyone's attention. There are several rungs to this ladder that culminate in a mass withdrawal of money from the banking system. This approach is radical and would hurt a lot people, but conventional means of negotiating aren't working. We lack the collective will to see any of this through, so we will be left with a system that does't respect or protect us. 

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