Occupy Isn't About Electing Democrats--It's About Exposing a Broken System
As long as there has been a thing called Occupy Wall Street, there have been people who've suggested it should become the left's version of the Tea Party. Josh Harkinson's piece is a notable contribution to the conversation because it comes after eight months of in-depth reporting on the movement. Harkinson, like Jennifer Granholm, suggests that Occupy should recruit and run candidates, so the left has champions in Congress and can credibly threaten less ideologically aligned Democrats. According to this logic, it doesn't matter if Occupy does this itself or essentially outsources the job to our progressive allies -- the point is to find ways to elect more good Democrats.
The idea of a progressive Tea Party was totally my jam before Occupy started. Like Harkinson, I didn't see how the left could create real change in America without taking control of the Democratic Party. Now I think it's important to recognize that the problems we face as a country can't be solved by electing more Democrats, or even by electing more good Democrats. A progressive Tea Party would be a welcome addition, but it wouldn't be nearly enough to create the kind of change we need.
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).
Occupy is less well suited than the Progressive movement to overcome these challenges. Most occupiers I know aren't interesting in learning how to raise money, knock on doors, or run campaigns. Starting a progressive Tea Party is a completely legitimate, useful goal -- but it's something for the progressive institutions to take on. New York state and city provide a good model for how this can work harmoniously: the Working Families Party is a unified progressive block within the Democratic party. They support Occupy and we support them on the issues. Together, we won a huge, unexpected victory for the millionaires tax.
Despite the hard work of our progressive allies, the unfortunate reality is that our political system as presently constructed is simply incapable of responding to people's needs. The election of 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. The tepid response showed our political system was designed to serve the whims of the market, and no politician has the power to do much about it.
My generation doesn't put all, or even most, of the blame for this state of affairs on President Obama. We don't hate the player, so much as we hate the game. I believe Democrats are better than Republicans, because Democrats care more about the lives of gays, women, and people of color. I also believe everyone should all vote, because not voting would hurt people that I care about. That being said, we won't just win by getting new players -- we need to change the game. The system is fundamentally incapable of healing itself.
Occupy is hardly alone in believing our political system is in a state of crisis. Congress' approval is at 9 percent. Many have written that our 18th Century political system has proven itself uniquely incapable of responding to external circumstances, including noted radicals like James Fallows, Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias. The presidential system is prone to gridlock (and, frankly, falling apart) and our byzantine, bicameral legislative system makes it incredibly difficult for even winning parties to put their agenda into law. The crisis of parliamentary democracy taking place in Europe is happening in America as well.
Occupy grew at such an exponential rate because it spoke to people's sense that the rules of our society are deeply unfair and the political system couldn't do anything about it. In the midst of systemic failure, only Occupy was talking about systemic change. Occupy transformed the public debate by naming the problem -- inequality of wealth and power -- and the cause - the power of Wall Street. More important than our discursive accomplishments, we showed what an independent, citizen-led social movement for equality and democracy could look like in America. I don't want to argue we've yet built that movement, because it's still very much a work in progress. By giving people the space to connect, Occupy showed that people power is the only force capable of shaking the foundation of our corrupt system.
Only Occupy can provide the space, literally and figuratively, for this conversation. The Occupy movement would derelict of duty if we focused on the electoral at the expense of putting pressure on the system as a whole. The entirety of civic life can not be reduced to a get out the vote campaign. The left needs strategies that take aim at all the ways neo-liberalism breaks down our communities. The inherent conservatism of America government, and the limitations of electoral organizing, means we need inside and an outside strategies.
Occupy has already inspired a new generation of social justice leaders to build an inclusive, radical movement that also speaks to the mainstream. We continue to push institutional groups towards more confrontational forms of resistance, bring new people into the struggle and provide a unifying message. Like the civil rights, women's rights, environmental movements before us, we can't afford to ignore the electoral realm, but we also shouldn't expect to succeed by voting alone. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party didn't succeed by electing candidates -- it succeeded showing the limitations of the electoral system. Occupy should aim to do the same.