The point of politics, one would think, is to get something done.
It’s an idea apparently lost on the Occupy movement, which began just a year ago with its takeover of New York’s Zuccotti Park and then rapidly spread to cities across the United States. Boston’s own version, located on Dewey Square, began Sept. 30. With clever slogans (“the 99 percent”) and novel tactics (such as the encampments), the media were enthralled. Something big, it seemed, was in the wind. When police arrived on Dec. 10 to move the protesters out, they were greeted by these defiant words: “You can’t evict an idea.”
Or perhaps you can. A year after it began, the Occupy movement is lifeless. Efforts to revive it — one in March and another on its one-year anniversary — were a bust. Occupy’s remnants seem a sad-sack of misfits, longing to find a place in the world, while the public has lost interest. If Occupy is the vanguard of the revolution, the emperor has nothing to fear.
But don’t blame the cops. In part, Occupy went bust because it was oversold and overhyped, more media creation than reality. One is struck by the credulousness with which it was greeted at the time, as if it truly were a mass movement. Yet the number of campers in New York at best was a few thousand. It was far fewer elsewhere.
More importantly, Occupy seemed — almost deliberately — determined to undermine its own effectiveness. One understood that in general it was about the gaps between the rich and the rest, but pinning down specifics was impossible. The early question to the Occupy protesters — what would it take to get you to go home? — had no answer. The movement refused to have an agenda or leaders (around which others could rally) and refused to engage in conventional politics (something the Tea Party did extraordinarily well). It is certainly conceivable that Occupy could have had a major influence on this November’s presidential election. Instead, it’s irrelevant.
One can find an opposite example, perhaps, in local politics, where it looks like once again it’s OK to “eat mor chikin.”
Chick-fil-A, the Bible Belt fast-food chain with clever ads, was the subject of a controversy in July provoked by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. Following rumors that Chick-fil-A was looking to locate in space near Quincy Market, Menino decried the chain’s support of anti-gay groups and specifically its opposition to same-sex marriage. In a blunt letter to the company, the mayor wrote, “There is no place for discrimination on Boston’s Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it.”
Thereupon ensued the kind of tempest that talk-show hosts crave. Other politicians around the country picked up on Menino’s words. Supporters of Chick-fil-A — including former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee — pushed back hard. Menino was subjected to a torrent of criticism, some of it on free speech grounds (Chick-fil-A should be able to say and do what it wants) and some complaining a city mayor had no business getting involved in such issues. Menino ostensibly was the loser.
Until he won.
Last week, Chick-fil-A caved. In a letter from its director of real estate, the company agreed to stop donating funds to anti-gay groups, saying it “is now taking a much closer look at the organizations it considers helping” and will not be “supporting organizations with political agendas.” Chick-fil-A also modified its own internal code, stressing it will “treat every person with honor, dignity, and respect — regardless of their beliefs, race, creed, sexual orientation, and gender.”
Chick-fil-A’s concessions came in response to negotiations with a Chicago alderman, but there is a clear line from Menino’s original outrage to its changed position. Like Occupy, Menino used soft power — in this case, the bully pulpit that his position gave him — to identify an issue and raise it to national prominence. Unlike Occupy, however, Menino and other politicians made clear what their agenda was and gave the company a way to respond to their concerns.
It’s a striking contrast. Menino saw an opportunity to advance the cause of gay rights, and deftly seized it. The Occupiers had a similar opportunity to advance issues of economic opportunity, and squandered theirs.Tom Keane’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.