To Toast or to Roast the Occupy Protesters of 2011?

In looking back at 2011, especially given the wrongheaded selection by Time Magazine of “The Protester” as their “Person of the Year,” it is worth examining just what sort of protesters entered the political landscape, and, more importantly, whether some or all of them deserve to be toasted–or roasted–as we enter 2012.

We know from experience that it’s hard for Time Magazine to not to take the easy way out for their annual feature (was it 2006 when they chose “you” with the mirror on the cover?). They’ve done it again this year with their selection of “The Protester” as their Person of the Year. Kurt Andersen’s companion pieces in the magazine’s latest issue lace their thesis with bias and misunderstanding. He was, perhaps, emboldened by the courage of the Occupy protesters A movement which, in his views, has more in common with the genuinely oppressed and imprisoned political prisoners of the world than with the Progressives of the 1960s.

As a political scientist and marketer who has studied protesters–and activists–for several years from a scientific perspective, I disagree with both the inclusion of Occupy protesters as a group to hold up in a positive light. Time picked the wrong year, and the wrong movement, to celebrate.

Andersen wrote that, “All over the world, the protesters of 2011 share a belief that their countries’ political systems and economies have grown dysfunctional and corrupt — sham democracies rigged to favor the rich and powerful and prevent significant change.”

The author bends over backwards to relate the protests of Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere with the scores of disenchanted youth and their hangers on in the Occupy protests. By choosing to include Occupy as part of “The Protester” narrative, Time and Andersen aren’t forging new journalistic ground, but rather taking the adoring media coverage the movement has received over time it to its logical conclusion.

The misplacement of the young people populating the Occupy protests within the same struggle as the Middle Eastern oppressed is downright disrespectful to their plight. But it’s what the professional operatives, who have been pulling the strings of the more malleable rank-and-file protesters of Occupy, are desperately seeking for their narrative, especially in the wake of the desertion by some on the Left of any association with the movement.

Anderson and Time Magazine have mistaken the signs and chants of Occupy for the heart of their motivation.. It’s not just the Left who have made this mistake; commentators on the Right (in these very pages) have attempted to understand the movement at its most shallow and insincere level.

As research director for The Frontier Lab’s recently released study, “Short-Selling America,” which investigated the most impassioned Occupy protesters as part of an in-depth analysis of the people who make up the movement, I was able to decipher their deepest motivating values. The results were astonishing: a segmentation along the lines of their deep values sets revealed two core groups, The Professionals and The Communitarians. Neither segment was motivated at the deepest levels by fighting crony capitalism or an unrepresentative political system, but rather by inner-focused values such as “community,” “purpose,” “meaning,” and “prestige.”

This understanding flies in the face of those who, as Andersen did, contrast the Occupy protesters with the protesters, particularly in the Middle East, fighting desperately for freedom.

It also undermines the shallow argument that the Tea Parties have something in common with the Occupiers. A prior study I conducted, “The Early Adopters,” found that the primary values driving Tea Party activists were centered on the next generation (rather than themselves): chief among them, “responsibility” and a belief in American exceptionalism. Even more surprising, using this technique to analyze the pro-union protesters in Madison, WI, this past year revealed a segment of Madison protesters with very similar deep values to the Tea Partiers.

Scientific evidence may not be enough to sway Andersen, who wrote that the Tea Party was an “angry and shockingly successful populist protest movement in the Tea Party, which has far outlasted its expected shelf life.” His piece, in celebrating the Occupy movement as protesters, promotes the very same characteristics of negativity and a lack of concrete demands that the mainstream media had found objectionable in the Tea Parties only one year ago.

While hypocrisy is nothing new in the land of the mainstream media (nor is complaining about it), what is new is the attempt to glorify a movement that is fundamentally opposed to freedom and the American system of government.

Which leaves me, as someone whose career is devoted to understanding activists at the most meaningful, scientific levels, wondering: Why is Time taking the easy way out again? More importantly, why are they changing from a model of holding up heroes to holding up those are anything but heroes. Indeed, why is “The Protester,” rather than “The Activist,” their selection?

Brian Kilmeade from FOX got it right when, upon hearing the news, responded, “That’s unbelievable. They equate the uprising of the Egyptian people after 50 years of repression, to a bunch of people in Zuccotti Park who don’t like Wall Street bankers.”

With a genuine understanding of the reasons for their protests, we see the truly stark difference between Occupiers and Tunisians, and also between Occupiers and Americans. It is ironic that Time chose the wrong moment to celebrate the activist and dangerously flawed that they convoluted free people exercising their rights with oppressed people fighting to be free.

Let 2012 be a year where Americans continue to enter the political landscape to uphold their part in the social contract; but let us also resolve to carefully examine the motivations and values they hold.