Last week, the Chicago Tribune published a commentary piece I wrote about the Occupy Wall Street protesters in Chicago. They’ve been camped out near my office for the past few weeks, and I decided to engage them in conversation on my way home one night.
The media has likened the Occupy Wall Street protesters to the Tea Party, making the case that these protesters are the left’s version of the small government movement that has swept the nation.
Let me be clear: The Occupy Wall Street protesters and the folks who hold tea party rallies are not the same, and I do not believe there is any real opportunity for a union between the two groups. But what I learned that night is that these movements both are rooted in the idea that this country is moving in the wrong direction.
If we look back to the 2008 presidential election, I’d argue that part of the reason President Obama won is because he strategically listened to disaffected economic conservatives, independents and Republicans. He took what he heard and then crafted a message for them, ultimately winning over some who normally vote for Republican nominees. Though we knew then and know now that he was being disingenuous, the lesson should not be lost on us; we cannot ignore the value of listening.
That is why it was important to me to have a conversation with some of the occupiers near my office. Now, I know the people I spoke with don’t necessarily represent the larger movement, but I wanted to understand their arguments, find common ground if possible, and attempt to persuade.
While the tea party has built a sustainable movement, my opinion is that the occupiers will eventually whither away; their broad, incoherent demands are for more wealth transfer on a grander scale, which we know are not popular and will not work. But when Occupy Wall Street does wither away, there are bound to be some activists looking for a political home who are against crony capitalism, who are against the out-of-control spending and debt — the same things the tea party rails against.
Will we try to persuade them and, if successful, welcome them and allow them redemption? Or will we shun them because they were once part of a discredited band of protesters that acted so badly?
I have always felt that movements are built by persuading people, not by shunning them. In case you haven’t noticed, the liberty movement – while ascendant – is not winning. We need to win. And we’ll only win by persuading one person and one group at a time to join our ranks.
We must win.