By Evan Harmon
“We are one.” “Join us!” “We are the 99%.” The rhetoric of Occupier signs bears a fascinating resemblance to the rhetoric of the American Revolution. Whereas the rallying cries during the Revolution focused on a government out of touch with the people it governed, economic policies that irked its citizens, and unequal representation, the Occupy Movement is focused on … well … pretty much the same thing.
“United we stand, divided we fall.” “E pluribus unum.” These slogans of the American Revolution would fit just as well on a sign at an Occupy rally or on a Facebook Wall as they did on political pamphlets and newspapers during the Revolution. In fact, calls for “separation of corporation and state” today are a deliberate reference to the historical doctrine of “separation of church and state.”
But the parallels do not end with the similarity in the words themselves. Both movements were made possible by the arrival of a new medium that gave a person’s words much greater power. Whereas the American Revolution was enabled by a recently unchained, independent ecosystem of local printing presses creating newspapers and pamphlets that allowed people to exchange information with like-minded people, the Occupy Movement accomplished the same thing to an unprecedented degree via the Internet, Twitter, and Facebook.
In 1754, New England had only four newspapers. By 1775, seventy-eight different newspapers had been published in the British American continental colonies. This meteoric increase in the access to information disrupted the equilibrium of power between citizens and their government. The printed distribution of newspapers and pamphlets, as well as justifications for independence like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, created a fabric upon which common sentiment, lively debates, new ideas, and methods of organizing could cohere to form a powerful threat to the British government.
Today, the power relationship between citizens and their government has been similarly disrupted by the Internet and social media. In Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, the sharing of common ideas under the noses of oppressive regimes has resulted in revolutionary change. With the Occupy Movement, governments continue to struggle with the growing power of increasingly-connected, internet-savvy occupiers.
Perhaps the most important similarity between the American Revolution and the Occupy Movement is economic. Governments face only a limited number of consequences by ignoring the voice of the people. But when a certain number of people are confronted with the cold, hard reality of being unable to put food on their family’s table, the powers that be have to contend with not only a disgruntled citizenry, but the desperation of people that have no other recourse than to occupy the streets. This is the political reality that all governments face, whether the right to revolution is enshrined in a country’s constitution or not.
And while the similarities between the movements are many, one clear difference is that because of the success of the American Revolution, the Constitution now provides a bloodless way to adapt the government to the will of the people via amendments. However, American history has shown time and again that the most worthwhile changes have occurred because the American people were willing to do more for the advancement of a cause than just vote. The Occupy Movement continues this American tradition of political change by occupying the middle-ground between taking to the polls and taking up arms.