What Social Research Can Tell Us About the OWS Enthusiasm Gap

February 27, 2012

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Bob Burnett, blogging for the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bob-burnett/occupy-wall-street-the-en_b_1125312.html) recently articulated a fact of American political life that has puzzled many observers. While upwards of 80% of average Americans express approval for statements like “Wall Street has too much power,” and “The rich need to pay more taxes,” nearly the same number say they “do not support” the Occupy Wall Street movement. In other words, there is a large, even majority group of Americans, who express agreement with the basic OSW message, but express disapproval of the OWS movement itself. Very strange?

Laurence Kohlberg’s stage theory of adult moral development might give a clue to this surprising problem.  Based on his research, Kohlberg outlined 3 levels of moral development: the pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional levels. Each of these levels consists of two stages, for 6 stages in total. In terms of numbers, if we were to graph these levels onto a bell curve, it would roughly put 80% in the conventional category and about 10% each in the pre- and post-conventional categories. The conventional level is just that, the level of moral development attained by the average citizen, and reflecting exactly the kinds of moral values on which a solid society is based. These are, in particular, (1) high regard for how you are viewed by others (stage 3), and (2) high regard for maintenance of law and order (stage 4).

It is not difficult to see, therefore, why significant numbers of people might agree to certain policy-oriented statements (on civil rights, ending a war, curtailing Wall Street power, taxing the rich) and yet feel an almost knee-jerk revulsion against those creating “disorder” in pursuit of those ideas and policies. Richard Nixon, of course, was the absolute master of manipulating for his own political ends this gut-level revulsion of the majority against those creating “disorder.” But the American right on the whole seems to better understand this dynamic than does the left. Notice today how even with Tea Party folks showing up fully armed, the rallies still take on the undercurrent of support for “law and order”; even the Militia Movement folks loudly assume this mantle of standing for order against chaos!

Recognition that morality stands above “law and order” is, in Kohlberg’s research, reflective of higher level moral thought, and only reached as a solidly habitual way of thinking by a relatively small minority of people. Many more people, however, can be spurred to consider it in specific cases, such as when police (symbolic enforcers of order) turn dogs and fire hoses loose on children, or casually coat unarmed and peaceful people with pepper spray at close range, in full view of the cameras.

The upshot of what needs to be learned from Kohlberg’s research, however, is that street protest movements need to very early on demonstrate itself as supportive of law and order, and standing again disruption of social order, if they want to gain widespread public acceptance. This is not, of course, an easy thing to accomplish when the actual goal of a movement is truly dramatic upheaval in the current system. But history demonstrates that it is not impossible either.



  1. Really great insight. We need to get this message out there.

  2. You shine a brilliant light on a troubling problem Dan. I felt a strong urge to join the Occupy demonstrations but felt excused by my age. The octogenarian Seattle woman who got pepper-sprayed put me to shame. And she shamed the over-zealous police. Now that I better understand the dynamic, next opportunity I’ll go. Thanks, Neil

  3. Yes, yes, yes!

  4. This is a helpful article, needing reflection by those in the movement. At this time a huge issue in the OWS circles is the impact of the “Blac Block”, an anarchist body who disrupt actions by OWS with their philosophy of deciding on the spot to take action by destroying property or at least assaulting people verbally. Blac Block actions in Oakland have turned the population against Occupy Oakland. Of course, there is the possibility of gov infiltration of the Black Bloc too.

    In the broader picture, OWS needs to learn from the Civil Rights Movement, Anti=War Movements, etc. Go to Gandhi!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: