Occupy the primaries: Sarah Sobieraj examines activist attempts to shape the 2012 election

With primary season underway, we checked in with Sarah Sobieraj whose book, Soundbitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism, examines activist groups trying to shape public political discourse during presidential campaigns.

NYUP: When it comes to activism, what do you think will be interesting to watch during this presidential election cycle?

SS: Well, it’s a fascinating cycle already. The rotating popularity levels of the Republican primary candidates have made these early months far more interesting than most primaries. But, in terms of activism, I think there will be a lot of striking differences between 2008 and 2012.

NYUP: How so?

SS: Well, in 2008, the Obama campaign was profoundly mobilizing, especially for young people, but their efforts were largely channeled through the Democratic Party and ancillary organizations such as Move On.  Young people were making get-out-the-vote calls, canvassing in swing states, and that sort of thing. But in 2008 there was no Tea Party. There was no Occupy Movement. The thing to watch this time around is the way these new social movement groups relate to the electoral process.

NYUP: Care to make a prediction?

SS: The 2010 midterm election showed us that the Tea Party sees electoral involvement as a key strategy.  With the stakes even higher, it’s hard to imagine they would sit it out. I think it’s safe to assume that they’ll be quite active, though probably more through campaign work for specific candidates than on the street with protest signs and chants. That is a strategy that has worked well for them.  The Occupy movement, on the other hand, is less enamored with electoral politics, having offered sharp critiques about the influence of wealth in politics. They are skeptics.  Many – though certainly not all – of these activists were Obama supporters in 2008.  In a sense, they got what they wanted in 2008 and many don’t think things have played out very well.  That’s not to say that they blame Obama for the uneven distribution of wealth, but rather, that they haven’t seen reason to believe his reelection will address the issues they are raising.

NYUP: So then, do you think they’ll sit it out this time around?

SS: Definitely not. They are already involved. In Manchester, New Hampshire there is still an encampment, and it was right in the thick of things yesterday, directly across from the hotel where the staffers and members of the news media were clustered. The activists, though, reportedly didn’t spend a lot of time at the camp itself, but instead showed up at the dozens of speaking events across the state. It was one potential protest opportunity after another, and quite activist-friendly since all the campaign activity was clustered in such a small geographic area. Romney actively engaged the protesters on more than one occasion. Not everyone handled the disruption that way, though. Newt Gingrich, for example, cancelled one event because of security issues presented by the number of protesters – in that case the protesters were Occupiers and Ron Paul supporters. Occupy was busy in Iowa as well. There are news accounts that detail their protests at events for Bachmann, Romney, Gingrich… I think we can expect much more of this decentralized sort of involvement.

NYUP: But if Occupy isn’t invested in elections, why are they bothering?

SS: Because, like the groups I describe in Soundbitten, the Occupiers are approaching this as a chance to be heard. They want to change how people talk and think about what matters.

NYUP: Will it work?

SS: “Occupy” was just chosen as the 2011 word of the year!

NYUP: Really?

SS: Yes! But, more seriously I think that the movement’s effort to shape the discussion has already worked to some degree. Listen to the candidates. Listen to the questions posed by the press. It sounds softer and more oblique than the activists would probably like, but it’s there.

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