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Obama: A Man Before His Time?

Obama: A Man Before His Time? November 15, 2011

If this article by Evan Selinger and Thomas Seager from Slate is accurate, it may well prove that President Obama’s progressive economic and health policies are a decade or more ahead of his time. Does the inclination by the next generation to act more collectively indicate that the USA will become increasingly more progressive and collective in economic and health matters?

The first paragraph below sets the stage, but the fundamental idea follows that setting:

For the most part, media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protest has been predictable. Stories are narrated according to the pro/con structure typical of—depending on whom you ask—balanced reporting or sensationalism. On the one hand, positive focus sympathetically explains why protesters have been demonstrating en masse since Sept. 17. These accounts place the activist mantra of “We are the 99%” in a historical and economic context that connects significant inequalities in wealth to violations of justice that should prompt people of conscience to demand rectification. On the other hand, negative reports argue against interpreting the protest as legitimate civil disobedience. Detractors’ opinions range from indictments of individual work ethic—contending that that problem at issue is poor individual decisions, not dysfunctional systems—to indignation over an unclear protest agenda that allows Dionysian energy to manifest in this millennium’s Woodstock….

Occupy Wall Street is an especially interesting collective action movement because it embodies a distinctive and pervasive shift in ethical orientation. The long-simmering forces that gave rise to the protests also have profoundly altered how students today view their place in society. Although we teach at different universities, recently developed information and communication technology allowed us to create an innovative cross-university model of education that jointly immerses our classes in games that present collective action problems. Before saying more about the games, it will be helpful to explore the parallels uniting streets and classroom….

This term, we have observed something remarkable and new. Students are far more willing than their immediate predecessors to work collectively for the success of the class in their first attempt. Even greedy players, who are fewer in number this year, fail to precipitate the “everyone for themselves” mentality that results in tragedy. In fact, the 2011 students are more willing to forgive betrayal, negotiate with unscrupulous actors in ways that create remorse, and prompt remedial actions to correct the injustice….

The results have been uniform. Today’s college students exhibit a greater disposition to work collectively than students did just last year, or in the previous five years. They may not be camping out to protest publicly, but the forces that gave rise to Occupy Wall Street surely have influenced their ethical sensibilities.

We view both the Occupy Wall Street and the change of behavior in our classrooms as resulting from the shared experience of the Great Recession. However, we also anticipate that so long as catastrophic conditions persist and create large-scale, personally experienced effects, new movements are likely to emerge. This should give us profound pause. Collective action can be nonviolent or violent (as in the case of the London riots), benevolent or malevolent, constructive or destructive. The future of political action in the United States may not be as benign as the recent past or present.


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