(This is a cross post of course from LiL, but I am hoping it has bigger appeal than just my little corner of electoral politics. This is a big movement, with so much potential, I felt compelled to express my concerns for it. Slight edits in brackets.)
I spent most of Friday during the day in Boston, at Dewey Square, taking in OccupyBoston. I brought all the donations I could scrounge up (for instance, my entire adult history in mothballed bed comforters and towels) and hoped to hang around and get some video interviews and stories I could tell. Instead I wound up volunteering for a web project they needed – I thought my time would be better spent utilizing my skills as a developer rather than working on Occupy content and publicity for a small, local blog.
I haven’t written much [on my blog] on the Occupy movement in the last few weeks, though I’ve been more than keenly following it online. There are so many thoughts swirling around in my head that I’ve been paralyzed from writing an essay-length post about it, although if you follow my Twitter account, the Facebook page which features many of the tweets, or keep up with @leftinlowell on the left sidebar [on LiL], you’ll know that I’ve been a very active author about OccupyBoston and OWS in the 140-character arena.
I could write a lot (and may yet) about what I found at Dewey Square on Friday – the strong sense of community, amazing solidarity, the organic means of organizing they employ – but many others have written about that already and you can find reams of pixels devoted to covering the news and day to day life of Occupiers.
But this afternoon, I found the 140 character limit failing me, and as I said in a direct response to an inquiry, needed a full blog post to explain my feelings and thoughts, specifically regarding the pressures that the Occupy movement is and will face in the coming weeks and months.
Via @BostonPhoenix, I found this short description (and full video) of a Harvard political panel hastily formed to facilitate a discussion of the Occupy movement, including visiting fellow Ed Rendell, former Governor of Pennsylvania.
A far greater percentage of the audience than of the panel had actually spent signiicant time at an Occupation — Williamson has spent time at #OccupyBoston — but that didn’t stop anyone from speculating or projecting.
Rendell is not alone — especially and not surprisingly among Democratic politicians — in wishing that some of the enthusiasm of Occupy would carry over to the ballot box. What Democratic politicians have been very slow to acknowledge is that many Occupiers are as sick of Democrats as they are with banks — and are not enthusiastic about the possibilities of a two-party system they see as being hopelessly corrupted by corporate campaign contributions.
As a thoroughly committed progressive electoral political activist, I have, and will continue to, volunteer my time to electing good candidates at all levels of government, turning out the vote, encouraging voter participation, and going to the polls myself. It’s the least I can do for my democracy. But as an electoral activist, one who also has some experience in movement politics (the anti-war Bush era) I want to caution the Occupation against giving in too much to the powerful forces that would love to squeeze out this amazing energy for their own use.
There are so many pieces of evidence I could use to back that up. The most obvious is to look at what happened to the Tea Party movement. Although I am in total opposition to just about everything the TP stands for, the movement at its inception was grassroots at its core, expressing anger at the status quo. (I don’t argue about the need for such anger, but the TP is, at least in its current incarnation, gravely wrong on who was to blame.) Even one of its founders, a conservative blogger, now repudiates what it’s become – a front group for the financial backers of the Republican party and its politicians.
Or look at the Obama 2008 campaign. The enthusiasm of young volunteers and voters was part of the reason he was propelled to such heights of popularity. They were fired up, ready to go. And when they got there…they got some of what they wanted, sure. At least a modicum of health care reform. A half-measures stimulus package for jobs that turned out to be only partly effective – because the downturn was steeper than anyone knew, and because a third or more of the stimulus was ineffective tax cuts instead of direct stimulus spending. He has had a weak stomach for the fight…the opposite of a firm, demanding executive branch leader that we so need…instead, “capitulating” and “pre-compromising” are the catchphrases that come to mind about Obama’s first term.
Obama also put Wall Street execs into his economic brain trust. Wall St certainly doesn’t love this president, but if you were looking for them to enact policies against greed and corruption, you were sorely disappointed…besides the Elizabeth Warren-driven Consumer Protection Agency, we extracted no price from the financiers – not jail time pursued where possible, nor reigning their excess in, or asking them to pay their fair share of their own ridiculous bailouts.
The last of which, along with prolonged unemployment woes, prompted the Occupation movement to begin with.
If I have any advice for the burgeoning Occupy movement – if I could make any appeal at all to them that would matter (and by them, I do mean us, since I will continue to do what I can to support it), it would be this: if you allow yourselves to be coopted and pressured to work on elections, driven by the necessarily short-term thinking of electoral activism, you will be distracted from your larger goal, and you will be disappointed, time and again.
There are a few reasons for this, some inevitable in any circumstance, like the fact that we cannot all agree, even with those we agree, 100% of the time. I eased out of the anti-war movement because of the 2006 campaign for Governor Deval Patrick, swept up in the enthusiasm of what he was trying to accomplish, and believing that I could be more effective as an electoral activist than trying to change the stubborn mind of the Bush administration on its war policies. Choose between bashing my head on a wall repeatedly, or use a hammer to break through? Give me that hammer!
And in some ways, in some campaigns, you can be more effective as an electoral activist; ask for, and receive, real and lasting change. I am largely proud of my Governor, and the work I did to elect him. He has been an effective economic leader to say the least, nevermind his progressive support for gay rights, and for most social programs (your mileage may vary). But even I have had my enthusiasm for his tenure brutally dampened at times, especially now, that he, who should be smart enough to know better, has been on the forefront of the impending legalization of casinos. I have been disappointed, even in the best of our leaders, enough to distract me from more far-reaching goals.
If I can be disappointed in someone like Deval Patrick, just imagine the disappointment around a second term of Obama.
You can’t take on everything. Neither individuals, nor movements, can afford to be divided in their efforts or their aims. And in the end, electing more and better leaders will not change the system. That system is so broken, electing a Patrick or a Warren or this or that individual is like a plank trying to hold back a tide. The system needs fundamental uprooting and replanting, and no amount of progressive electoral politics (save the entire corps of incumbents being ousted and replaced wholesale at once by a massive grassroots effort of small donors and volunteers) will truly address the core problem at hand.
Electoral politics is about fraying the cloth of the “system” at the edges; Occupation should be about reweaving the entire bolt.
I have some ideas to propose (well one overarching, giant idea, really) of how Occupy can do this, for once, and for all. It’s an uphill battle so massive, so stacked against us, so big of an effort that just to think it makes me shiver in fear and excitement. But it is the only inevitable conclusion I can come to when thinking about the future of our country and how to right all the wrongs. I am talking about a constitutional amendment to rescind corporate personhood and the ruling of the Supreme Court that money equals speech.
All of what is broken with our system is about money and influence in our politics. Global climate change cannot be addressed because of the massive amount of money being pumped into stopping the regulation, and reversal of, carbon dependence. Economic justice is being thwarted by financial contributions from banks and Wall Street, so that the concept of going back to Clinton-era taxes on the wealthy and capital gains (money making money, as opposed to work making money) is nigh impossible to argue. And so on, and so on, and so on. If in a democracy being elected depends on monetary support, and people with more money can support more heavily than the rest of the 99%, then who will ever listen to the 99%?
A constitutional amendment is a big hill to climb. It’s a long-term hill, it could take a decade. It could take more. The money arrayed against such an act would be astounding – if you think Wall Street spends money on politics now, wait until you try this out.
However, no amount of cash is going to convince the American people that the system is working as it is, or that Citizens United was a good idea, or that corporations should have rights as though they were people. If lasting change is what Occupy seeks, than the moment is now.
But whatever form, and eventual goal, this movement takes on (if indeed it does not peter out after we see the economy rebound after some new temporary economic bandaid that puts off the inevitable real crash that I feel is coming) it needs to think beyond 2012. Beyond 2014, or 2016. Beyond the cyclical electoral process.
If that means fighting the pressure from Democratic politicians to elect them, as well as ignoring the temptation to help enact near-term policy bandaids, then as a staunch Democrat, I say, so be it. What you lose in short term gain is far exceeded by the long term possibilities.
I can’t help thinking that much of our future is dependent on what this nascent movement called Occupation does next (but no pressure!). And, I would love to be able to say at the end of all of this, “Our Democracy is dead…long live our Democracy.”