The Guardian’s polling expert Harry J Enten has written an interesting article, “Occupy Wall Street’s people power loses popularity.” Enten’s declaration that the Occupy movement is losing force is worthy of further investigation. For a statistical expert, he argues on the strength of very few facts.
Enten begins by writing that “any New Yorker can tell you that Occupy Wall Street was a force to be reckoned with in the fall of 2011.” Was it really? In 2011, did the Occupiers mobilize tens of thousands, oust a political leader, or effect any policy change? They did not.
Enten’s sole example of Occupy’s power at that time was his anecdote of being forced to abandon a taxi blocks from his destination in the financial district, due to blocked traffic. By this logic, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and the Marathon are also “forces to be reckoned with.”
Occupy was a moral force. Its slogan “We are the 99%” and its symbolic attack on the whole world financial system had a huge impact on the imaginations of millions of people around the world and greatly unnerved the nation’s most powerful people. However, there is no question that in 2011, in New York City, it did not yet possess tangible political, economic, or physical force.
In November, Occupy was swept from Zuccotti Park. “You can’t be faulted,” Enten generously concedes, “if you believed that Occupy Wall Street forces would be back.” But you are “mostly wrong.”
Why just “mostly” wrong? Probably because two weeks ago, New York City witnessed the undeniable fact of its largest May Day protest in years, and it was Occupy Wall Street that inspired it. Enten dismisses the rally because “the police managed the protest with ease.” But why should a peaceful assembly of citizens be difficult to “manage?” He comments that May Day did not even “have the presence to cause even minor disruption.” Enten’s view of what makes a protest meaningful is perhaps unsurprising considering how much store he set by his own aborted taxi ride.
Enten wisely moves on to the safer terrain of opinion polls to make the argument that public support for Occupy has declined. Yet the first fact he points out is that “most pollsters have not even bothered to survey Americans on their view of Occupy since the end of the Zuccotti Park sit in.” But what does this matter? Just because pollsters are not interested in Occupy does not mean people do not care. Very few polls are conducted about The Avengers, baseball, or sex positions, but New Yorkers still think about all of them!
Finally we arrive at the meat and potatoes. According to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, the percentage of Americans who say they are supporters of Occupy Wall Street has fallen since November from 29% to 16%. A Siena Research Institute survey shows that the number of New Yorkers with a favorable view of Occupy has fallen from 58% to 49% over approximately the same period.
Enten concludes by arguing that the Occupy Wall Street protests are unlikely to be important in the 2012 campaign. Why? It has to do with “the current numbers of protesters and, more importantly [emphasis mine], the percentage of the public that supports them.” Is Enten really arguing that poll results are more important than people marching in the street?
For the sake of argument, let us imagine that the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll is right, and that 16% of American adults support Occupy. This is quite enormous! 16% of the population is not black, or latino, or Jewish, or Mormon, or gay, yet these minorities still have great political importance. And favorability of Occupy is three times as high in New York City, where people are much more likely to have actually come into personal contact with the movement. These are not the figures of irrelevance.
Perceptions of Occupy Wall Street have definitely changed since the fall. For example, in October, even Mitt Romney expressed sympathy with the protesters, saying, “I look at what’s happening on Wall Street and my view is, boy, I understand how those people feel.” Would he dare to say the same again today? As the Occupy movement becomes more explicitly anti-capitalist, it really should not come as a surprise that it might lose some support.
A year ago, Occupy Wall Street did not exist. The pollsters did not predict it. Yet the movement spread to hundreds of cities around the world, and energized all those who oppose bailouts for the banks and austerity for everyone else. Can the result of two polls really tell us all we need to know about the future of Occupy?
Harry J Enten does not have a crystal ball. He cannot forecast the future. He does not know what people think. What he should be able to do however, is to have the humility to think harder about the facts in front of him and to approach them like a true scientist, with a spirit of inquiry, instead of prejudgment.