It 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. Continue reading