"The civic movement has entered a new phase. The first phase, romantic and euphoric, is over.” These are the words of Boris Akunin, a popular figure in anti-Putin rallies, but could easily have been said about Occupy Wall Street. But the new phase of each movement looks very different. While Occupiers tried to retake Zuccotti Park this week, their Russian counterparts took office in local governments throughout the country. This difference in strategy not only suggests a split in millennials but also says a great deal about the state of American politics. Despite the heavy hand of Putin, young Russians have opted to work within the system. Occupiers on the other hand have shown no desire to wade into politics, even at the local level. The reason is Cynicism.
Veterans of last year’s pro-democracy Arab Spring movements across North Africa and the Middle East as well as in Russia decided to run for elected office after their encampments dissipated. For recent examples check out Young Russian Politician Fights From The Bottom Up and Russia's Young Opposition. This move would be unthinkable for most Occupied protestors. Could this be explained by a difference in the goals of the movements? At first glance it would appear that last year’s pro-democracy movements across the globe had different goals than Occupy Wall Street. In the Occupied movement a change in government is only a small part of a larger goal, reforming society’s relation with the influential 1%. In last year’s pro-democracy movements, regime change was the ultimate goal. But a core belief pervaded all of these protests, the belief that there needs to be a reduction in the influence of moneyed minorities. In pro-democracy movements, this meant bringing down oligarchies that use state power to accumulate wealth. For the Occupied protests, this meant weakening institutions that have used their state sanctioned power to continue to amass fortunes, even during the nation’s deepest post-war economic recession. So if the movements sought roughly the same goals, why do we see this divergence in strategy?
America is entering a dangerous phase in its democracy. For the majority of American millennials the only version of national politics we have ever known is a deeply partisan one, which is heavily influenced by big donors. This environment has, hopefully only temporarily, removed any desire among many civilly minded youth to pursue change via the ballot box. It is this cynicism that has led to the divergence of tactics between the two movements. While it is clear that many Russian youth do believe that Putin and his posse are in firm control of regional and national governments, this hasn’t stopped them from getting involved on the local level.
The question is no longer if Mr. Smith can go to Washington but if Mr. Smith can even get into the halls of his city’s government. American political spending has priced millennials out of the market across the country. Local school board races now have so much money pumped into them that only candidates willing to accept the influence that comes with big donors are running. Art Pope, Citizens United, and North Carolina Politics. The perilous position of American democracy became abundantly clear to me when I realized that I found it astounding that a 28-year-old Russian, with no major structural support, could get elected to a local government position in the country’s capital.
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