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

All the necessities of farming, from the grain elevators to farm implements to the railroads were run by monopolies that squeezed the farmers dry. To compound these problems, the U.S. money supply was limited to a fixed quantity of gold, as demanded by Wall Street. This insured that as the population grew, the money supply would remain fixed, leading to enormous downward pressures on farm prices. It was a continuous rural depression as black and white farmers drifted into peonage. (Will rising student loans do something similar to the next generation? Will all of us be indebted to a handful of Wall Street banks?)

Yet, even in this state of misery, farmers’ alliances formed to build cooperatives designed to get them out from under the monopoly structures. They eventually linked together into the National Farmers Alliance that developed “sub-alliances” in thousands of counties in the South and Midwest. At great peril, black farmers also organized and joined in the movement.

To aid in the organizing, the Alliance sent out over 4,000 “lecturers” who held give and take sessions about how to build cooperatives and how to reform the economy. But after nearly a decade of organizing, it became clear that the farmer cooperatives could not succeed, because the monopolies deliberately denied them badly needed credit, and because the money supply was enormously constricted by Wall Street. (There was no Federal Reserve to do the dirty work for them.)

This led the populist movement to develop its most radical and original idea — the creation of a democratized monetary system independent of Wall Street. In their plan, farmers could bring their crops to federally sponsored warehouses and get federal paper currency as credit until their crops were sold at decent prices. This “sub-treasury” system, as they called it, would dramatically inflate the money supply, making it easier for farmers to retire their debts. It also would totally undermine the hard metal monetary system that was owned and operated by a handful of Wall Street banks. If ever there was a battle between the 99 percent and the 1 percent, this was it. (Contrary to popular lore, the Populist movement was not about “free silver.” That was an import from liberal Democratic politicians like William Jennings Bryan, who rejected the more radical Populist platform, including the sub-treasury system.)

By 1890, after a decade of grass roots organizing, the Farmers Alliance realized that it must engage directly in politics in order to keep its cooperatives and their farms from ruin. The South, at the time, was dominated by white Bourbon Democrats — the merchants, planters, and other elites who used terror and ballot stuffing to maintain their racist grip on post-Reconstruction political power. In the North and West, the Republicans were the party of the gilded elites and maintained their power by “waving the bloody flag” of the Civil War against the Southern Democrats and their Northern Catholic immigrant allies. Both parties were completely in the grip of the new industrial and financial elites.

Out of these conditions grew the People’s Party, one of the most powerful third party alternatives in U.S. history. But it didn’t end well. In 1896 the People’s Party was hijacked by a group of ambitious politicians who rammed through a fusion ticket behind the Democratic presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan. That retreat, combined with Bryan’s defeat, alienated the farmer base within the National Farmers Alliance. With the failure to achieve political power, the cooperative movement was starved to death due to lack of credit and faded away. More and more small farmers lost their land and slipped into abject poverty as the elites tightened their grip on political power and held it, with few exceptions, until the New Deal. (See Lawrence Goodwin’s The Populist Moment for a definitive account.)

There were four essential movement building components of populism that perhaps provide a way for us to measure where we are today and where we need to go:

1. Shared Movement Experiences: The populist cooperatives provided the day-to-day shared experiences that bound the movement together on a local, state, and national level. People worked together and struggled together against powerful opponents, often having to suffer vigilante violence to protect their budding cooperatives that stored produce and livestock, and that sold food, supplies, and farm implements. These shared experiences built up the courage and self-respect of millions of participants. They felt part of something big and important. They shared the common identity of populism.

And today? While there are thousands of cooperatives and progressive nonprofit organizations in the country today, they are not linked in substantial ways. It’s also not clear if they are creating the common experiences necessary for movement building.

The Occupy Wall Street encampments certainly are (or were) creating such communities, but as currently conceived and constructed, they just aren’t suitable for those who don’t want to encamp. Also it’s not clear if the encampments will survive the current round of evictions.

Some unions also have developed powerful internal collective cultures. But unfortunately, union density continues to decline. As it does, the focus often narrows to internal collective bargaining issues. The Wisconsin campaign in defense of public sector workers’ rights was a new moment that certainly created a shared sense of movement. Yet, it seems destined to flow into the Democratic Party.

The environmental campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline also has the potential to build a common collective experience among its participants. But it may have difficulty as it collides with unions and politicians who claim the pipeline will create badly needed jobs.

The obvious point is that at the moment these efforts, and many others that could be listed, are fragmented and unconnected. We have a long way to go to build a common collective experience that matches the power of the populist cooperative movement.

2. Systematic Education:The populist lecturing system also was key to movement building as it developed a dialogue with everyday farmers about how the economic system really worked and what the movement should stand for. The base of the movement, not just the leadership, became financially literate as it debated and understood the need for a radical restructuring of the financial system based on the “sub-treasury plan.”

And today? We don’t as yet have anything like a “lecturer” system to engage the American public in an educational discussion. But one could be built in a hurry. There are plenty of us who could link together to build a “Economics for the 99 Percent” program. But it may need something larger to get it going and give it purpose.

3. Independent Media: The populist movement was well-supported with a rag-tag collection of small, but vital newspapers and journals — about 100 of them — throughout the country. These media outlets provided continual news about the key economic and political issues of the day. Its editors ran their journals on a shoestring in order to maintain their independence and the clarity of their message.

And today? We do indeed have our rag-tag newsletters, journals, and thousands of websites, with being one of the best. Running on a shoestring is nothing new to them. But at the moment, there is little coordination or shared identity. But that could come as a movement grows.

4. The Peoples’ Government: And finally the populist movement’s base and its leadership truly believed that the American government belonged to them — they should be able to run political institutions just like the founding fathers had promised. As true democrats, they were not intimidated by money or power. They were decidedly not anti-government.

And today? We are much more ambivalent about our relationship to governing than our forefathers ever were. Do we still feel capable of collectively exercising power to stop the financial predators from running the country? The jury is out.

These comparisons, although superficial, suggests that we’ve got a long haul ahead. Wall Street will not concede either its power or its wealth unless confronted with an enormous 99 percent movement. They’re not worried about neutering the Democratic Party. But they are concerned that something new and unforeseen might emerge.

“99 Percent Clubs”

It seems that many of us are hoping that somehow Twitter and Facebook messages will spontaneously explode into a new movement with a million people in the streets just like in Cairo. But, history suggests that it will take significant hard-core organizing lasting years if not decades to create the infrastructure for a new movement.

One way to start is by forming decentralized “99 Percent Clubs.” Any group of individuals could form a club and then develop activities to popularize and dramatize the 99 percent framework. Some clubs might be aggressive by helping to prevent evictions in their area or by directly supporting Occupy Wall Street actions. Others might engage in more educational activities like passing out material about financial elites in front of banks. Still other 99 percent clubs might work on national efforts to forgive student loans. But the point is, we need shared spaces where the 99 percent can work with each other to share experiences and build a shared identity. We need a common club with a common identity rather than just continuing our good works inside our issue silos.

I realize that it would probably take an organizational miracle to pull this off. But imagine if a thousand 99 Percent Clubs sprung up around the country in the next several months. We’d be well on our way to building a vast network that could create a tactile presence for the 99 percent. Add a little Twitter and Facebook to the mix, and you could even imagine common actions that linked the thousand clubs. And we certainly could count on Occupy Wall Street to lead the charge in provocative ways.

But let’s be very clear. Even such a miraculous organizing effort will not get us to a political alternative by 2012. It will take years and years of hard work, of trial-and-error activities, of experiments in linkages, of many attempts to forge and test a common program, and so on. We’re either in it for the long haul, or it won’t happen at all.

Dream on? Maybe. But we really do need an alternative vehicle to the two dominant political parties. Otherwise, we’ll be voting for the lesser of two evils for yet another generation as we suffer through outrageous levels of unemployment and round after round of social safety-net cuts. It won’t be pretty as Wall Street’s “markets” demand fiscal austerity to protect their booty.

At this point, I’ll settle for a modest beginning. Let’s hope we can muster up the vision and the patience at least to discuss and imagine an alternative political path.

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