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Don't 'Occupy the Democratic Party' -- Four Lessons From the Populist Movement

History suggests that it will take significant hard-core organizing lasting years if not decades to create the infrastructure for a new movement.

The public understands correctly that Wall Street’s financial elites dominate politics. How else can we account for the fact that the financial sector was rewarded for gambling our economy into debt and killing 8 million jobs in a matter of months?

At the same time, wages are stagnant, benefits are being cut right and left, public sector workers are under attack, and unemployment remains above 8 percent. No wonder Americans believe that both parties are beholden to the 1 percent.

To be sure, the 99 percent framework, so magnificently popularized by Occupy Wall Street, will be deployed by just about everyone to energize the base. Yet, we’re hearing arguments that Occupy Wall Street should occupy the Democratic Party. George Lakoff, for example, writes:

Whatever Occupiers may think of the Democrats, they can gain power within the Democratic Party and hence in election contests all over America. All they have to do is join Democratic Clubs, stick to their values, speak out very loudly, and work in campaigns for candidates at every level who agree with their values. If Occupiers can run tent camps, organize food kitchens and cleanup brigades, run general assemblies, and use social media, they can take over and run a significant part of the Democratic Party. 

George, get real! It’s not going to happen. Nor should it.

If Occupy Wall Street has anything at all to do with the 2012 elections, I hope it will organize large demonstrations at both conventions to dramatize the well-documented fact that both parties care more about financial elites than they do about the 99 percent. Of course there are worthy Democrats who have shown the gumption to take on Wall Street. But their power is muted as the Democratic Party overall defers to Wall Street’s lobbyists and campaign funds.

But won’t it always be the lesser of two evils?

For over a generation, we’ve watched the Democratic Party move steadily to the right and increasingly accommodate the top 1 percent. (In case you have any lingering doubts, read  Winner Take All Politics , by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.) The Wall Street orgy of the last 30 years was built upon the deregulatory push initiated by Jimmy Carter and then accelerated by Bill Clinton. Wall Street–friendly policies continue today, actualized by Obama’s appointment of Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary. Even after the enormous crash, born and bred on Wall Street, the needs of the financial elites still come first. The banks who caused the crash, we recently discovered, had access to $7.77 trillion in secret bailouts, while the real economy languished.

Nevertheless, labor and progressive organizations see no other option save the Democrats. They believe it’s a fool’s errand even to consider a political alternative because, they argue, third parties always fail, sometimes miserably. (They feel particularly burned by Ralph Nader’s run, which they believe put G.W. Bush into office.)

So what’s to be done?

Learning from the Populist Movement

For starters, we should investigate carefully the last massive movement that explicitly challenged the one percent and that demanded a democratization of high finance — the Populists of the late 1880s.

Sounds ancient and irrelevant? No so. This made-in-America movement grew out of the horrendous conditions faced by small farmers, especially in the South. In order to survive through the winter, farmers had to pledge their future crops to one dominant local merchant in exchange for food and supplies. The merchant (then called “The Man”) would charge outrageous interest rates, insuring that eventually farmers would have to sign over title to their land in order to settle their debts. As a result, thousands of independent farmers turned into impoverished sharecroppers.

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