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The Coffee Summit

MM: The question I’m trying to raise is whether representative democracy actually works. In Zuccotti Park and wherever else around the country, we feel like our elected officials failed us because they did not notice all these numbers and these charts. They did not feel the conditions on the ground, in our lives. So we all had to get together and yell about this. And some people have noticed. But that doesn’t mean they’ve earned our trust back.

ES: Of course not. I’m not saying that it should.

MM: So how do we address this? One of the most important things about Zuccotti Park and Occupy Wall Street is the form that it takes. It’s not a protest with a leader. It’s not a protest with demands. It’s not even thinking of itself as a protest, necessarily. People are saying we want to address these problems with direct democracy. We want to start making decisions for ourselves, after having been ignored for so long. And that’s why this is gaining traction.

ES: Look, you’re not going to find anyone who’s more supportive than I am of what’s been going on. But the direct democracy you’re talking about—that’s only going to go so far.

MM: It’s not practical. I know that’s what you’re saying.

New York: Eliot, in your piece for Slate you wrote: “It is a leaderless movement … lacking in subtlety in its political strategies, and marred by fringe elements whose presence distracts and demeans.” Who are these “fringe elements” ?

ES: I’ll give you an example. There is a TV ad running right now that takes the outcasts of the people protesting there—people who are screaming things that are racist and way beyond acceptable discourse. Now, this is speech protected by the First Amendment. They have the right to say it. The TV ad begins with supportive statements of the protest from Nancy Pelosi, Obama, and me. Then the ad asks: “Why are these leaders supporting Occupy Wall Street?” Well, I’m supporting Occupy Wall Street not because of fringe groups that are hateful, or racist, or direct venom towards any group of citizens. And I’m not supporting it because of anti-capitalists, even. Like I said, I’m a capitalist. And anti-capitalists, frankly, I don’t think they understand how wealth is created. The question is how you create a capitalist system that works. Many of us have been pushing very hard to do that. We’ve been challenging this philosophy of deregulation coming from everyone from Alan Greenspan from Harvey Pitt to former President Bush. We’ve been saying that’s the wrong way to go.

MM: So we’re in agreement on reasons why we support this. Around the world, people feel alienated from the political process.

ES: Alienation is an interesting word. It’s freighted with all sorts of connotations.

MM: What’s wrong with alienation?

ES: Well, here in the U.S. at least, the people are not alienated from the political process as such. But they feel alienated from the outcomes we’ve been getting. When Barack Obama ran in 2008, there was this enormous emotional outpouring of support, this feeling that within our political process, perhaps we had generated a movement for change. Define change however you wish. There’s been disappointment in what’s happened thereafter. But what we’re seeing in Occupy Wall Street is part of the political process. That’s what’s so wonderful about it. Grassroots politics changes America more than traditional politics through the ballot box. Grassroots politics is where the environmental movement came from, the labor movement, the women’s rights movement—

MM: What do you mean when you say that Occupy Wall Street is part of the political process?

ES: I mean it’s a welling up of citizens who are getting together, articulating a view, saying “we’re not being heard, we want to change the structure in a particular way.” Go through our history. Any one of the major social movements began this way. Elected officials came later in the process. So yes, there is alienation. But it’s not alienation from politics.

New York: Manissa, do you vote?

MM: Yes, I vote, but voting is a complicated moment for me. Voting for me feels like, “Okay, thanks, government, for giving me one day when I can express myself.” I get to express myself by choosing between people who all look the same once they get into office, and who have all these interests behind them. What’s different at Zuccotti Park is that the people down there are actively trying to engage in direct democracy.

ES: By which you mean what?

MM: I don’t know how much you know about the process of consensus decision- making—

ES: I know all that. I think it’s wonderful. But look, voting is our mechanism for changing government. Government has not done what we believe it should do for a multitude of reasons, like gerrymandering and campaign finance. You’re not going to find anyone who’s more supportive than I am of what’s been going on. But the direct democracy you’re talking about—that’s only going to go so far. I go back to Churchill. Democracy is the worst system, except for all the others. It’s the best system we’ve got.