The American people no longer share the same space. On the rare occasions and in the rare circumstances that the middle class and the poor do meet, it is usually in a privately mediated space like a mall or an amusement park where money acts as a great leveler giving, as the Supreme Court has with speech, primacy to those with greater economic leverage. More importantly perhaps, these are not zones of free expression, these are not public spaces where the public may hold forth on the issues of the day.
I travelled with 40 young Americans to Spain for just a week, and the very first thing those students saw as they got off the bus which took us from Barajas to the hotel was a protest over government austerity, and this in a public space where people engage in that most American of activities, shopping. On a trip to a famous provincial city they saw thousands marching in the street, peacefully but forcefully demanding support for public health services. To a person they could not identify what they were witnessing until it was explained to them by those of us who had lived in Europe.
In Europe they do “organize” rallies of course as we do here. Usually that organization involves setting a date, a time, and a location, and posting that data on a handbill which people will see as they move through the myriad common spaces in which people co-exist. The people are already concentrated in the places they need to be, the infrastructure is already there to transport and hold thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people. What people may live beyond walking distance take subsidized public transit (which includes both intra-city and inter-city transportation) to and from the “manifestación”.
In most places in the United States, where the automobile is the most subsidized of transportation, buses need to be chartered for an event, people are brought in using this “one time use only” arrangement. Then they stand and shout as strangers in a strange land. The time and place of the demonstration is secondary to the time and location of pick up and drop off, lists of interested parties must be acquired and emails sent or phone calls made as there is no real shared space open to free communication. The logistics and, let’s be honest, the time commitment and isolating focus of such events are such that only people for whom a particular cause has tremendous importance in their lives will attend. The bottom line is that these demonstrations don’t happen in the phenomenological sense. Even when they are attended people don’t witness them directly in the course of their lives. They are either covered in the media, or they are not. If they are, the people who then “witness” them are a self selecting group of people interested in seeing such things, people are not spontaneously drawn to the demonstration. It doesn’t happen in “real time”, it happens when the people on the news report it hours later. For those who don’t watch the news, or read hard news on the Internet, there is almost no chance that they will hear of the event, given that we’ve isolated our political centers from the other activities of daily life.
For all of these reasons public demonstrations don’t work in the United States. In European countries the people feel their power as they stand together demanding a response from their elected representatives. The representatives are not the only ones who know that they are there, their fellow citizens are observing as well, gauging the support for an idea, a movement, a cause. Sensing a groundswell people join with the movement, change happens. Democracy isn’t just a plebiscite every two or four years, there is daily feedback on the direction government is taking, and the consent of the governed can be withdrawn at any moment.
Nothing succeeds like success, and nothing fails like failure. The Occupy Movement started to gain some ground in some urban centers around the US. The Tea Party also made an impact on the public consciousness for a season. The former was isolated mostly to the coasts and was devoid of any power because, except in the few places where the daily lives of the people AND the location of the demonstrations overlapped, they were not able to draw energy from spontaneous popular support, the latter was a movement which was clearly orchestrated to do a particular job at a specific moment in time. Where Occupy had its people and was looking for a cause, The Tea Party had its causes, and was interested in gathering the like minded. Neither functioned as a vehicle for promoting the popular will and/or altering the course of government in a meaningful way.
The powers which have conspired to create our landscape and place us thereon in homogeneous groups are well served by keeping us isolated from one another, viewing each other as “the other” so that we cannot and do not find common cause. That the poor and racial minorities feel this sense of otherness in wealthy white suburbs is beyond debate, but as a white middle class homeowner in a poor minority neighborhood I can tell you that the inverse is true as well. While I have never sensed hostility, I do get the sense that my neighbors wonder what my game is, what my motives are, what my angle might be. I am the strange one, why would someone with other options commit to living in a place which they are struggling to find the means to leave?
The people of the United States may once have been at the vanguard of democracy. We are no longer. In other places other people enforce their will upon their governments, for good or for ill, more readily, more frequently, and more thoroughly. By giving up on urbanity and sprawling across this vast continent we have literally lost our focus, and with it our power.