Occupy Debate: It Isn’t Just about Electoral Politics and Third Parties


Occupy Wall Street protestors march down Fifth Avenue towards Union Square during a May Day rally in New York City. Photograph: Monika Graff/Getty Images

In an interview with The Real News Network, Jeff Cohen, the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, the founder of the media watchdog FAIR, and the co-founder of RootsAction.org, argued that the Occupy movement–as well as the rest of us–must dismiss third parties and its contempt for the political process outright, and instead focus on fielding and supporting Democratic challengers in primary races across the country. Writer for the Washington Post, Jonathan Capehart penned a blog post for the paper in which he essentially mirrored Cohen’s position. Both men held out conservative movements, most recently the so-called Tea Party, as examples of right-wing groups who have succeeded where Occupy falls short.

There is certainly no arguing with the recent Tea Party-Republican-Koch Brothers, et al.’s achievements, as Cohen properly points out.

But the next question—and you raised it—is, if you’re going to also—instead of—you know, you can’t forever be a protest movement. At a certain point, the whole idea is to take some power, to not just protest power, but take power. And when we look at the recent history of our country, like the last 35 years, we see that right-wing social movements, sometimes with corporate money behind them and sometimes not, have seized one of the major parties, the Republican Party. And when we look around us and we see that the military budget is through the roof, wealth disparities are through the roof, battles we thought we’d won years ago, like reproductive rights, separation of church and state, we’re having to refight all that. The reason that the progressives are on the defensive, whether they’re out in the streets protesting or they’re trying to figure out an electoral strategy, we’re on the defensive because right-wing social movements have seized one of the two major political parties and used that power, by controlling the Republican Party, to continually dominate the American debate and move the debate rightward. So while I agree the most important thing is to build independent social movements, I also believe one needs an electoral strategy, and in that electoral strategy I think the right wing has basically shown the way.

Cohen does lay out nicely the right wing’s past ability to homogenize the Republican Party. However, it is extraordinarily disingenuous to paint the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement with the same brush. The two movements are wholly dissimilar. Nor should the Occupy movement be forgiven its failures to engage in the electoral process. As I have opined before, I do not write today to defend the movement’s silence in this arena or argue that I have the perfect solution. That being said, no serious person should have the impression that somewhere in America tonight an independent Tea Party event will be taking place wherein the group will debate its place within the larger conservative movement and how the influence of money spent by very few individuals, corporations, and conservative PACs has derailed its greater message. The Tea Party may have sprouted from the soil as an organic movement, but it has since been fertilized with harsh chemicals and weeded and debugged by deadly insecticides produced by the likes of Monsanto. One need look no further than perhaps the catalyst of the entire Tea Party machine, Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher. Who could forget this caricature of a man and potential member of Congress? During the 2008 campaign, he was held out as the overtaxed everyman–a victim of government overreach and out of control spending. If only the government would cut taxes and social programs, he and men and women like him would each be driving two cars and living in a Toll Brothers catalog house.

Wurzelbacher was then grabbed up quickly by the campaign of John McCain and blatantly used in an attempt to rally the millions of men and women who mistakenly believed the falsities espoused by Samuel and the then growing Tea Party.  It was later discovered that much of what the balding blow-hard had claimed about his own personal life was lie. Sarah Palin was then brought in to further buttress support from the Tea Party masses. This is essentially where we stand today. The Tea Party was at no point an independent organic movement. It has been and continues to be nothing more than a group of manipulated “leaders” and misguided masses, controlled at every turn by conservative donors and power brokers, albeit significantly electorally successful. The Tea Party offered nothing new to the right wing. The right wing has been chipping away at domestic social spending for as long as I can remember. Conservative hard-liners have made no secret of their want to destroy social programs and so-called entitlements while bolstering defense spending and cutting taxes. The Tea Party is nothing more than a gift to the extreme of the right wing–a group that it can easily manipulate to do its bidding. While it is properly pointed out by both Capehart and Cohen that the Tea Party and its financial backers may have in fact ousted traditional Republicans, it is not as if traditional Republicans have historically been accepted by those who pulled the strings prior to Citizens United.  The party at its core has always been radical. The Tea Party simply allowed it the wiggle room to oust the compromising traitors from its ranks. The Tea Party is not challenging the Republican establishment, it is providing a wider voice to those with money and power who have desired to steer the ship rightward for decades. It is not akin to the progressive movements of the 1930′s or the 1960′s.

Occupy meetings have absolutely nothing in common with Tea Party leadership “summits” wherein religious leaders, Republican Party surrogates, and wealthy donors are often in attendance. Any outsider who has attended or listened in during an occupy general assembly or strategy session could testify to the intelligence and thoroughness of the process. It is a serious undertaking where ideas are debated and consensus reached. One can make the case, as do Capehart and Cohen, that this exclusion of those who could assist in the fielding of candidates and inclusion in the electoral process is a fatal error. However, I believe those in “leadership” positions with the Occupy movement have not reached a consensus on how precisely to maintain the movement’s independence while working within the political process and its players. I do not believe that there is widespread harmony that a zero-sum approach is best to achieve Occupy’s ultimate goals. This discussion never took place within the Tea Party, it was simply swallowed whole and alive by the corporate and religious establishment. While Caprehart concedes that the so-called “movement” was co-opted by the likes of Dick Armey and the Koch Brothers, he mistakenly allocates far too much credit to individual candidates for rising up and seeking election. Tea Party candidates are opportunists generally. There are few true believers in the bunch.

Capehart sets forth his argument for the need of Occupy to jump into the political process as the Tea Party has.

Think about it. When the tea party got real angry, folks who adhered to its overarching concerns about federal spending and overreach made their voices heard in protests in Washington. But they weren’t content to simply protest. Whether out of conviction or co-opting by Dick Armey or the Koch brothers, those protesters became office seekers. They upended the Republican establishment by running primary challenges to the right of sitting members of Congress — and winning. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) is the most recent example. They provided the GOP the majority it needed to take back the House in 2010. And their resistance to raising the debt ceiling last summer put the full faith and credit of the United States at risk, called into question House Speaker John Boehner’s ability to control his caucus and forced President Obama to make a debt-ceiling deal that was less than ideal.

Capehart cites the recent defeat of Dick Lugar of Indiana. A Republican Senator who has been in Washington my entire life. His opponent, Richard Earl Mourdock, the Indiana Treasurer, is no rising star of the Tea Party. He is a two-term office-holder who has run for office several times. He did not find his call to action at a Tea Party rally. He is a hard line conservative who despises negotiation or compromise. In other words, he fits in well with the the current political climate surrounding the Republican base.  He did not return from a Tea Party rally with an acute commitment to become a conduit for change. Many of the so-called Tea Party candidates are more or less cut from the same cloth–political opportunists who are now striking while the iron is hot.  For example, Scott Walker, prior to his now infamous call with a Koch impostor, had entirely sold his soul, not to the Tea Party, but to the powerful interests that manipulate it. Ron Johnson, a businessman who defeated three-term Senator Russ Feingold in Wisconsin, was also touted as a Tea Party candidate in 2010, yet his campaign was nearly entirely funded by himself and several special interest groups and corporate interests, not small contributions from rank and file Tea Partiers. Much has been made of the Tea Party’s success in 2010, yet the fact of the matter is that over 60% of Tea Party candidates lost.

The media is also in part responsible for the overstatement of and widespread misconception of Tea Party successes. The use of terms such as “Tea Party candidates” and “Tea Party backed candidates” in the media lead to improper reporting of fact. Many of the candidates are either self-financed wealthy individuals or individuals financed by those who pull the Tea Party strings. The notion that the Tea Party has swept in grass-roots candidates em masse is simply false. Media reports of Grover Norquist-like threats of primary challenges attributed to the Tea Party also fan the flames of misunderstanding. However, the threats are not dissimilar to those of Mr. Norquist–funded entirely by special interests and corporate donors, not by small donations of those seriously concerned with taxation and government spending. The primary challenges will not be manned by grass-roots Tea Party candidates, but rather by hand-picked folks financed by those who actually pay for the gasoline that powers the Tea Party engines. This is precisely the type of co-opting that the Occupy movement struggles to fend off.

Cohen also argues against third parties as a vehicle for change.

I am a graduate of that. I’m a recovering that. You know, I worked in Barry Commoner’s third-party campaign in 1980, the best presidential candidate no one ever heard of. You know, you can decide that your progressive electoral activity is going to be getting protest candidates 1 or 2 or 3 percent of the votes. I prefer trying to work in primaries where we have a chance of actually winning, where you can bring that same full Green Party or independent progressive agenda into a much vaster audience and you can actually win a primary.

I just—we have a system that’s rigged against third parties. We have a winner-take-all system. We don’t have a German Parliament or a Swedish Parliament where if the green parties get a few percent of the vote, they get into parliament. That’s not what we have, and to pretend that we do, I think, is faulty electoral strategy.

It is difficult to mount a cogent argument for the use of third parties to affect real change within our system. However, the idea should not be written off in its entirety. A serious nationwide all-ballot-level third party bid for has yet to be seriously attempted. If the Occupy movement were to do so it would have to develop a platform and a vision consistent at all levels, and avoid the disjointed efforts of other third party attempts at inclusion in the process. It must build from the floor to the ceiling, not from the roof to the basement as did Ross Perot. The Green Party, for all of its virtues, is extraordinarily disorganized and myopic, and suffers from many of the same shortcomings of the Occupy movement itself. Americans Elect failed because it attempted to cut to the front of the line, as well as its financial secrecy and dubious management. The Justice Party and candidate Rocky Anderson have had little success in essentially taking the Occupy message to a third stage. The party has run up against a brick wall of red tape and ridiculous state requirements in obtaining ballot access. The system was constructed by Democrats and Republicans to blockade third parties, but changing that should also be on the to-do-list of the Occupy movement. I do however take Cohen’s words to heart. If the Tea Party–or its backers–can elect candidates that challenge the status-quo of the Republican Party, why can’t the Occupy movement do the same within the Democratic Party? Moreover, why can’t it do the same without selling its soul to the party machine and its own list of benefactors?

It is a complicated question for those most closely involved with determining Occupy’s strategy going forward. It must not disenfranchise much of its anarchist and activist base by appearing to sell out to the Democratic Party machine. However, Capehart and Cohen are correct in that it can’t simply stand pat–it will atrophy and dissipate over time. Further, as a scorched earth approach to organizing is not in line with Occupy and its supporters, it will be difficult to strike fear into candidates who do not walk the Occupy line if elected. The Occupy movement, unlike the Tea Party, as a truly organic and grass-roots movement, does not have a cavalry of wealthy donors aloft white horse to ride in at a moment’s notice to untie the fair maiden from the tracks. These are yet several other strategic quandaries those trusted to make decisions for Occupy must overcome.

Cohen and Capehart are correct in that it is time for the Occupy movement to chose a course of action and set its troops in motion toward that end. It does have an overarching message, one of economic justice, much like the Tea Party and its concocted anger toward spending on anything that doesn’t kill people in foreign lands. Occupy’s message resonates at a time when issues of economic justice are hot topics of debate in the Congress and across the several state legislatures. Yet, even as Occupy–to its credit–was able to move the debate in its direction in 2011, it has not forced any significant policy changes at the federal or state level as the Tea Party has. We have seen little change surrounding the treatment of large financial institutions. Talk of a return to Glass Steagall is treated as if it is an idea cooked up by some “socialist” dictator. No progress has been made toward stemming the increases in income inequality. I believe it is possible for the Occupy movement to involve itself in electoral politics without allowing itself to be swallowed whole by the Democratic Party. It must find, finance, and field candidates in state legislatures, Congress, and myriad other statewide and local offices. Each candidate must believe in the core principles of economic justice, while Occupy avoids a zero-sum approach on other issues. Candidates must openly state that they are running on behalf of the Occupy movement or the 99%. It must not be ambiguous.

As Cohen rightly points out, there are already many within the Democratic Party who long for a return to the principles of economic fairness and financial regulation once championed by the party of FDR. It should not however rule out a third party bid. It should formulate working groups to design a plan for ballot access. Cohen also makes clear that our governmental structure is not similar to that of many Parliamentary systems, but that in and of itself has not prohibited independent candidates from winning elections and wielding power in the Congress. If the Occupy movement was able to elect twenty or thirty candidates to the Congress on a third party ticket, it could dramatically effect policy. Each side would be vying for its support, and each side would compromise to win it. While a third party might be shut out of leadership positions in the Congress, it could caucus with the Democrats and push the party to the left on economic issues. The bottom line is that the movement must do something. It must act. It must not allow its fear of co-option to paralyze it into impotence.

The Occupy movement and its supporters must also avoid blindly following a party that ultimately acts against its own interests, as the Tea Party has. In races where no Democratic candidate is supportive of economic justice, Occupy members must not vote for that candidate and actively recruit and field challengers. In order for Mr. Cohen and Mr. Capehart’s Democratic Party approach to work, there must be consequences for those who fail to work toward economic fairness and equality. Otherwise, it is doomed to failure.