Any politician would be remiss to ignore the gathering storm that is the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The traditional news media has been quick to trivialize it as a bunch of angry kids with too much time on their hands. The irony is they fail to see the direct correlation between the Occupy movement and the conditions that existed in the Middle East before revolution took hold.
Many look at the Occupy protests as lacking a central focus; yet in their superficial analysis, they falsely characterize the movement’s main strength as a weakness.
Occupy Wall St. has managed to become a veritable Rorschach test for many forms of lament manifesting as a result of our current political conditions. Some look and see a group that is standing up to corporate control over the legislative process. Some see a group calling for nationalizing the banking system. Others see a group rallying for socialized medicine.
Traditionally, this would have been troublesome for any political movement, as without a bumper sticker slogan it’s hard for the evening news to grasp your cause. But political movements no longer need the validation of the evening news to raise awareness and earn relevance.
Across the Middle East, we saw revolution spread in countries with state controlled media and governments that worked hard to suppress channels of communication to quash uprising. Despite those efforts, citizens were able to successfully use social media to spread the message of the revolution. It's exactly what we're seeing with the Occupy protests and it's where the movement gathers strength.
With social media, the politically motivated have been able to streamline the process and reach their friends and a core of like-minded individuals with a message that is presumably relevant to them. By our nature, we tend to congregate around those with similar socio-economic standing, and therefore have the ability to influence dozens of friends or peers in an instant.
Those same friends spread a targeted message to their group and influence the opinion of dozens of others. The result is a digital contagion effect that if modeled out to show how quickly it spreads would make the Ebola virus blush.
This is where the true genius of the Occupy Wall St movement comes into play. By serving as a vague umbrella, standing up for 99 percent of the population, it allows each individual to put their own spin on the movement and use social media to mobilize peers who agreee. The model is strikingly similar to the way revolution spread in the Middle East.
So what is a politician or campaign to do if they don’t wish to end up on the Mubarak side of a metaphorical Tahrir Square come election season?
Realize that Occupy Wall St. is a real movement with real power to vote: Start by acknowledging their significance—publicly. These protestors hold real power to sway close elections next year using social media to motivate their friends and other supporters to act as a cohesive force to oust representatives they see as appeasing the needs of corporations over their constituents.
Watch for obscure candidates to gain favor among Occupy Wall St. voters and potentially usurp more established candidates. Remember, although they have traditionally been disillusioned by the political process, Gen Y still represents the largest section of the population at 95 million people.
Align your campaign with Occupy Wall St. values: The fluid nature of the movement can actually work to the benefit of many campaigns, because they can pick which value they want to support.
The most important consideration is authenticity. Young voters have a naturally higher disdain for being sold a line by a politician than older voters. This is a by-product of having grown up in a world that constantly inundates them with superficial advertising statements. To truly reach them and change minds, your dedication must be genuine and you must be prepared to back up your promises with an actual game plan.
Leverage social media: If you want to ensure this group is hearing from your campaign, communicate often and smartly through social media channels. The political conversation with this generation has moved to communities online. Whether you like it or not, that’s where young voters will be discussing your campaign, so you need to be part of the conversation.
Remember, social media isn’t a digital soapbox. It’s a tool for engaging in actual dialogue with your constituents.
Perhaps most importantly, Occupy Wall St. needs to serve as a wake-up call that the current direction of our political discourse is not sustainable. Deregulation made as penance to campaign donors have long-term social ramifications. The rate at which we have increased the social stratification in this country has been dizzying.
The lack of articulation of Occupy Wall St. doesn’t mean they don’t have an increasingly valid point. The countries in the world with the greatest conflicts are not the one with the poorest population, but rather the ones with the greatest gap between their rich and their poor.
The road to long-term political viability is not characterized by abolishing the middle class and ignoring young voters. Therefore, it’s not a matter of if campaigns need to start acknowledging Occupy Wall St, but when.
Aiden Livingston is the President of rEvolutionary Media, the world’s only youth engagement political consulting firm. www.rEvolutionaryMediaNYC.com