Occupy Debate: Let’s Meet in the Middle

OccupyIt is certainly a rare situation where I find myself in the middle on an issue, nearly inconceivable in questions of politics. However, in a recent debate I found myself square on the fence. In competing articles this past week, Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones and Max Berger of Occupy Wall Street penned pieces debating the various positives and negatives of the Occupy movement transitioning itself into a movement focused on electoral politics, much like the right wing Tea Party. Harkinson, who has reported on the Occupy movement for the better part of a year, opined that Occupy’s stated goal: “the toppling of a corrupt political system under the sheer weight of its own repression,” could not be accomplished unless the movement makes a concerted effort shift its efforts and attempt to influence individual political races across the country. Berger on the other hand took a more balanced approach, advocating for continued mass pressure upon the political structures in the United States as it challenges efforts to transform it into another MoveOn.org, while also paying close attention to electoral politics. Harkinson cites previous left-leaning electoral successes such as Lyndon Johnson and his signing of civil rights legislation as examples of electoral victories.

Harkinson takes some umbrage with the Occupy movement and its posture toward an electoral-centric approach.

Occupy activists, many of whom don’t have a lot of experience with politics, seem to think that MoveOn is taking its orders from the White House. In reality, MoveOn polls its 7 million members on which candidates to support, and it often runs campaigns to unseat Blue Dog Democrats when it thinks a more progressive candidate has a shot at winning. But whatever. What Occupy really ought to do if it intends to live on is plunge directly into electoral politics on the local, state, and congressional level. It ought to co-opt the Democratic Party.

Though Occupy could support many sympathetic candidates in Democratic primaries, some pundits haven’t pushed the idea because they worry about a tea party effect on the left, with liberal Democrats losing to Republicans in the general election. Yet other than a third-party bid, with its potential for another Nader debacle, this may be the only way to command Washington’s attention. Many occupiers believe it’s futile, however, because they’d never win against an avalanche of unregulated corporate political spending.

Berger articulates Occupy’s reticence to simply sign on as another left-leaning non-profit.

If Occupy tried to start a left Tea Party, we would be following in the footsteps of several progressive movement efforts that came up short. Howard Dean’s presidential campaign turned into Democracy for America to reclaim the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” the Progressive Change Campaign Committee explicitly references the DCCC, and Rebuild the Dream originally billed itself as the progressive Tea Party. I have worked for each of these organizations and have lots of respect for their work. But unfortunately, none of these projects, despite their many successes, have managed to mount a serious national effort to take out bad Democrats and replace them with good ones. They are constrained by the lack of a grassroots base in many congressional districts and big donors reluctance to fund challenges to Democrats. Even big, collaborative efforts to take out bad Democrats have a relatively poor record (See Sheyman, Ilya; Halter, Bill; or Lamont, Ned).

While I am sympathetic to both positions, and I do believe both men share the same ultimate goal, I believe the answer lies somewhere in between. Harkinson, who too his credit has been one of the few reporters covering the Occupy movement in-depth, misses the ultimate binding strength of the Occupy movement: its members don’t desire to be part of the establishment as is, and fail to see a means of change from within. Rather they view extraordinary pressure from without as a more formidable force for change. Even as he cites Lyndon Johnson as an electoral success, he must also admit that outside pressures exerted upon the Congress and the presidency moved civil rights legislation forward. Johnson himself had made no grand promises as vice president or as a candidate for president in 1964. Much like Franklin Roosevelt so famously called upon those in the progressive movement to take to the streets and rally the masses if the movement sought to see its agenda signed into law. While many of the immediate economic and relief measures passed during the first tranche of the New Deal passed easily, none of the second tranche of New Deal programs–many of which faced opposition from the business community and conservative Democrats–would have been possible without the robust pressure thrust upon Congress by the public. Much of which was drummed up through grass-roots organizing rather than organized efforts to elect individual candidates.

It isn’t simply enough to send a handful of progressive Democrats to Congress in order to “unrig” the system. The system itself will co-opt even the most true-believing of candidates in short order. The vast majority of congressional districts around the country do not lend themselves to radical candidates. However, that is no excuse not to try. Harkinson is correct in that the Occupy movement can not exist as an island unto itself. When opportunities are presented to elect progressive candidates–be they third-party or Democratic–the Occupy movement is foolish not to lend its support. However, I believe the Occupy movement is cognizant of the danger of  what becoming a lefty Tea Party would mean. It would necessarily involve similar a scorched earth approach to policy once its candidates are elected. The Occupy movement would have to design a progressive pledge–formal or informal–much like Grover Norquist and his tax pledge. How then would the Occupy movement handle candidates that once elected do not follow through on their promises? Would it be tricked into running down the rabbit hole of funding candidates to unseat its first-loved candidate indefinitely and in every state?

Insofar as Occupy’s fears of being co-opted by the likes of MoveOn.org and Rebuild the Dream are concerned, it is naive and irresponsible to take a zero-sum approach to cooperative efforts. It is not inconsistent with Occupy’s approach to changing the political system to throw its considerable weight behind campaigns for legislation, repeal of legislation, regulatory reforms and enforcement, and the election of specific candidates. It is obviously true that many in the Occupy movement would become disenfranchised and disheartened by following Harkinson’s advice. Many in the movement might defect outright. However, it has also been my experience that the movement also includes incredibly bright and reasonable people who would not toss out a more measured course of action out of hand. The movement itself has authored several policy and legislative working papers and submitted them to the proper regulatory agencies and congressional representatives. It understands economics and social policy particulars as well as any progressive movement out there. Much of the policy positions of the progressive movements that the Occupy movement shuns are directly in line with its own, and to advocate wholesale abandonment of cooperation–to throw the baby out with the bath water–is quite frankly childish.

Harkinson also argues that rather than to stump for Obama, Occupy should openly support progressive movements and PACs that are campaigning against Romney. The idea is utterly anathema to the Occupy movements methodology, and rightfully so. First, it’s disingenuous. Campaigning against Romney is not significantly any different than openly campaigning for Obama. The two are not mutually exclusive. The goal is not to elect Obama, but rather to force those in power to break down the structures of government that operate in conflict with the masses. To accomplish this goal, it matters not what the party affiliation of the president may be. The Democratic Party has been operating in direct conflict with its stated platform for decades, and electing another Democrat by bludgeoning Mitt Romney isn’t going to change that. The Occupy movement is no more likely to “co-opt” the Democratic Party than it is the Republican Party. That being said, Harkinson is correct in that the Occupy movement must broaden its tactics and embrace a multitude of strategies in order to move its policy and structural agenda forward, and viewing those that it is direct agreement with with disdain is counterproductive.

For his part, Berger’s approach is far too radical, but he sells me on some points as well. I agree with Berger that simply electing more Democrats won’t create the change the country needs. However, it will certainly add oil to the gears. I have steadfastly held to my belief that either a third-party movement or a massive uprising of tens of millions of people is needed to force the political elites to change course, but in the meantime, we must also work toward change that affects the most abused in our society to live better lives. Berger also unfairly attacks many of the progressive movements as failing to elect good Democrats and replace bad Democrats. Here, he misses an obvious reality: it is precisely through movements like Occupy Wall Street that change like that takes place. In order to accomplish the goal of moving the policy agenda to the left, we must have millions of people organized toward that end. Casting aside these movements to go about their adorable little work while the Occupy movement focuses on the real problems society faces is condescending at best. It smacks of Americans Elect, an online presidential nominating method that would prefer not to bother with all the work of building a party and quickly head to the front of the line. The Occupy movement can not have its identity stolen from it unless it allows it to be. Coordinating with other groups is not as dangerous as Berger believes.

Berger also takes a far too extreme tact toward the political structures in the United States itself. He claims of the election of Barack Obama, “the most progressive Democratic nominee of the past 30 years and a Democratic super majority in Congress resulted in relatively little change in American political economy, even during a time of massive economic crisis.” Barack Obama was not by any stretch a progressive candidate, nor did he campaign as one. In fact, he and Hillary Clinton campaigned as moderates, and disgustingly overtly to boot. Berger argues that the political system is designed to respond only to the market. It isn’t the system that responds to the market necessarily, but the failure of the public to create an environment wherein massive hand-outs to moneyed interests would not be tolerated. As such, I agree with Berger in that campaigning for Obama or against Romney does not serve the interests of the public or the Occupy movement. Obama had his shot to react differently to the crisis, yet he did not avail himself of the opportunity. I can not sit here are demand that Berger and Occupy support him because Romney may or may not be worse.

Berger goes off the rails slightly by attacking the presidential and congressional system in the United States as byzantine and outdated. He is rightfully angry that the system failed to respond to the crisis in a way that served the greater good, but it is unclear what is is that he views as the alternative. The system is certainly “prone to gridlock,” but I for one would not advocate for a system wherein the majority is able to rule over the minority carte blanche, with no check on the power of the majority, no matter how disastrous the policies. It is not the sixty vote cloture requirement that creates gridlock in Washington, but rather the public’s failure to create an environment wherein consequences flow from continued inaction and obfuscation. It is entirely likely that both the House and Senate will be majority Republican in 2013. The political structures–short of gerrymandering–have nothing to do with it. It is the voters inability to inform themselves and organize effectively. Berger is also rather lofty in his description of Occupy. Occupy does not dwell in the rarefied air of being the only movement or group speaking about structural change. Many of the organizations he lauds yet shuns do precisely that.

Berger is correct that Occupy must keep up its efforts to exert pressure on the system as a whole. Harkinson is correct in that in doing so, it is not indispensable to operate alone. Berger is correct that bogging down in electoral politics will lead to Occupy losing sight of its greater goal. Harkinson is correct in that involvement in electoral politics is part and parcel of the change that the Occupy movement seeks. Berger is off base in his belief that the very structures of democratic and parliamentary government must be shaken to their core.  Harkinson is minimally too optimistic in his view of the current electoral environment and the Democratic Party. Berger–much like myself as a younger man–wishes to break up the system and cause chaos which will reverberate across Wall Street and the powerful everywhere. I will not begrudge him this, nor would I ever seek to quell the enthusiasm of the young. It has been at the forefront of every important political battle the world has ever known. Harkinson however, is far too practical in his approach, evidencing his age–likely much closer to mine–but yet the nuts and bolts of change must be assembled, and level heads are required in order to do so.

Berger cites womens’ rights, civil rights, and environmental movements as electoral victories, and concedes that the electoral arena must not be ignored. Each victory in the battles for equality he cites ultimately culminated with a legislative victory, and each victory involved concurrent massive public effort and massive legislative and electoral pressure. In other words, precisely in the middle ground between the two men.