How movements work: David Letterman

Social movements succeed by raising issues and giving other people the opportunity to address them.  We call this agenda setting, but it’s not just the agenda in Congress or a state legislature; it’s also what people talk about.

Bill Clinton appeared on David Letterman’s show last week and Occupy Wall Street was an obvious topic for humor and discussion.   President Clinton expressed some sympathy, reviewed how government could–and should–pay for what it does, noting that deficits exploded when President Bush engaged in two wars and cut taxes at the same time.  (It was self-serving, but everything he said was true.)

Letterman noted that it would make sense for people who were having a hard time to ask others, like President Clinton and himself, to pay more in taxes; it seems fair, he said. Clinton replied: no one should pay more taxes now, but once we’re really out of the recession, wealthy people should pay more.

President Clinton’s comments got more attention than Letterman’s, interpreted on conservative sites (e.g.) as an attack on Obama.

But think about what a shift the entire conversation represents.  Letterman doesn’t do politics routinely.  The Occupy campaign gave him encouragement to do so, and provided the former president with a chance to endorse the concept of progressive taxation, something that used to be well-accepted in American life.

Movements work when they change the boundaries of acceptable talk about policy options.  The Tea Party did this when it helped put the federal debt at the center of almost every debate–or rant–in Washington.  President Obama and Congressional Democrats talked the talk as well.

Now, Occupy Wall Street is now shifting the focus, and employment and fair taxation are now back in the conversation.  When House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor has gone to promote his program for tax and regulatory cuts, he has suddenly had to respond to concerns about jobs, albeit not very effectively.

By no means is this enough for the people who are protesting, but it’s not over.

This is one way movements work.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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