A Few Good Democrats Are Not Enough

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-wing Tea Party, we would be following in the footsteps of several progressive movement efforts that came up short. Howard Dean’s presidential campaign morphed into Democracy for America, which set out to reclaim the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”; the Progressive Change Campaign Committee explicitly references the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; and Rebuild the Dream originally billed itself as the progressive Tea Party.

Indignants in Agen, France, gather in the town hall square to discuss direct democracy, June 15, 2011.

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 rotten Democrats and replace them with good ones. 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 suited than the Progressive movement to overcome these challenges. Most occupiers I know aren’t interested 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 last 30 years and a Democratic supermajority in Congress resulted in relatively little change, even during a massive economic crisis. The Democrats’ inaction proved that 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 more humane than Republicans because they care more about the lives of gays, women and people of color. I also believe everyone should 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 FallowsEzra 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.

May Day 2012, San Francisco.

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 wouldn’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 —gross inequality of wealth and power—and the cause: the power of Wall Street. We showed what an independent, citizen-led social movement for equality and democracy could look like in America. 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 be derelict if we focused on the electoral at the expense of systemic change. The entirety of civic life cannot be reduced to a get-out-the-vote campaign. The left needs strategies that take aim at all the ways corporate-funded neo-liberalism breaks down our communities.

Occupy has already inspired a new generation of social justice leaders to build an inclusive, radical movement that also speaks to the mainstream. 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.


Max Berger is an organizer at Occupy Wall Street.

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  • giizhigokwe

    OCCUPY PARTIES ALL THE TIME WE DONT SUPPORT POLITICAL PARTIES!!!!

    • http://twitter.com/BooksMoore Books Moore

      Speak for yourself, buddy.

  • Julia Willebrand

    The two party-system is THE system. “Systemic failure” is a construct of a two-party political system controlled by Wall Street. System change has to start with changing the two-party system.

    • http://twitter.com/BooksMoore Books Moore

      That requires working for a Constitutional Convention http://callaconvention.org/

    • OhioGramma

      We could work with what we have IF we had Instant Run-off voting. Extremely progressive candidates could run as independents and no one would be “throwing their vote away” or helping the opposing party because you get to pick your 1st and 2nd choice candidate. The whole process would move the system to the left!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1390165143 Radhanuga DeviDasi

    If Occupy goes left, or right, it loses its point and credibility. Don’t be part of the machine, rise above it.

    • http://twitter.com/BooksMoore Books Moore

      Any position will be on a spectrum of either left or right. You cannot avoid this except to not take a position, which is a position to accept the status quo. Occupy really will lose its point, in that case.

  • Bearycold

    The problem with the Occupy movement and the reason that it is doomed to failure is exclusivity. For a movement that claims to represent 99% of the population, you are pushing away supporters with both hands. I have listened to rants against unions, Democrats, and Progressives, basically anyone who identifies with the left and has been trying to hold back the steamrollers of corporate control of our country. We have been told “You’re not welcome here” and “this isn’t about you”. My father was a radical union organizer in the ’30′s and ’40′s and their movement was successful because it was inclusive. I am a child of the ’60′s and our movement was much less successful and what change we effected was slow and only partially successful because we arrogantly excluded anyone who we deemed ‘establishment’. Change can only be effected when we identify the common enemy and stop blaming each other, when we embrace our differences and understand our common goals.

    • Horseback_Prophet_Washington

      If you see or hear anyone say that kind of thing, report them to an organization tent. That is not part of occupy protocol. One of our rules is that anyone is welcome.

      • http://twitter.com/BooksMoore Books Moore

        You need to read Adbusters’ recent stuff. What the commenter is saying is real.

        • Horseback_Prophet_Washington

          Adbusters gave us the idea, but it is not an authority to “go to for the rules.” In fact, there is no authority governing OWS, it effectively leads itself- by the same way mankind should have been implementing all along, rather than creating third-party government to exploit them. The general consensus is anyone willing to fight for Occupy’s cause may join. Exceptions to said consensus exists, hence Bearycold’s comment, but majority consensus has authoritative priority. (And its the only entity that ever will.)

          • http://twitter.com/BooksMoore Books Moore

            I agree, actually. The idiocy of late from Adbusters – essentially wanting Occupy to remain a click of anarchists – says to me they are completely undeserving of anything except some credit for sparking the original idea. If Occupy is to live up to its “We Are the 99%” mantra, it has to make that a reality. The only way to do that is to build BROAD SCALE coalitions that total up to a New Progressivism for this generation. Other arms of that movement may run candidates, that’s fine. But there simply must be an enormous, coordinated, encompassing MOVEMENT, with each part functioning in its area(s) of expertise.

          • JoeHillstrom

            yes– the failure, in fact the plain unwillingness, of Occupiers to do real outreach to the 99% makes us look like arrogant hypocrites in too much of the public’s eyes. Some folks would like to keep their anarchist pals at their side in Actions rather than rub elbows with plain Americans. Strange for advocates of a “class-free society”– it’ s plain radical snobbery. This attitude has been the bane of progressivism in America for decades…..

    • JoeHillstrom

      Dead right, too many Occupiers think they invented the radical wheel– how can they claim to speak for the 99% when they wont even make a coalition with the (5-10%?) of progressive and left Americans? Pure arrogance, pure elitist vanguardism…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robert-P-Francis/1003693413 Robert P Francis
  • anony321

    Sabotage & Play Dumb! The best tactics are silent and insidious.

    • http://twitter.com/BooksMoore Books Moore

      Yes, in elementary school.

      • JoeHillstrom

        Yeah, perfect– there are too many perpetual 5th graders in Occupy…

    • JoeHillstrom

      Those are elitist tactics, for people who have given up on winning over supporters with reasons and evidence

  • Jeangerard

    The broad public demand that Occupy must “organize” and “state goals” etc., comes
    from a public so long unmobilized and unmotivated, and so confused, that it wants to
    be told what to do and have a structure to hang onto. They don’t want to be alone.
    They don’t know how to be creative. They don’t know what “horizontal decision-making”
    means and have never experienced it. There are plenty of good organizations already up and running which they could join — if they really want to help.
    Occupy is doing many, many good and revolutionary things from which participants are learning and accumulating experience. Occupy can be creative, and has shown fresh
    abilities in both approach and demeanor. They are not tired. They are not victims of guilty consciences. Support them. Let them grow. Don’t try to tell them what to do.

  • http://twitter.com/BooksMoore Books Moore

    Not either/or. BOTH. Work to affect systematic change AND work to affect actual policy and increasingly better electoral outcomes.

    If Occupy is to live up to its “We Are the 99%” mantra, it has to make that a reality. The only way to do that is to build BROAD SCALE coalitions that total up to a New Progressivism for this generation. Other arms of that movement may run candidates, that’s fine. But there simply must be an enormous, coordinated, encompassing MOVEMENT, with each part functioning in its area(s) of expertise.

    The idiocy of late from Adbusters – essentially wanting Occupy to remain a click of anarchists – says to me they are completely undeserving of anything except some credit for sparking the original idea.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PTYBZYD6GOMZWXFAZBGKFZIPRY terry
  • Jonytk

    What you need to do is occupy congress and change the electoral system, reform congress.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sara-Amis/4938819 Sara Amis

    I agree with you up to a point. And I should say that in the beginning I believed firmly in the power of direct democracy…after all, I had been part of consensus-based groups for years and had seen how it can work.

    However, my experiences in Occupy Atlanta have shown me that direct democracy is just as, or nearly, as subject to abuse and distortion as representative democracy, when you have a group of people with an agenda who are willing to trample over process and everyone else. I’ve seen the worst of old-school politics…ballot-box-stuffing (in the form of packing GAs with people who normally don’t come), intimidation, and attempted disenfranchisement. That it mostly didn’t work is a testament to the resilience of consensus as a model…but we wasted a lot of time and energy and one of the side-effects was to drive people away, not just newcomers but dedicated hard-working activists who had been there from day one.

    I have come to the conclusion that direct democracy is not a viable alternative to representative democracy, at least not the way Occupy Atlanta does it. Sincere practice of democratic values and more participation could fix the problems…but that could also fix the problems with representative democracy. What I’d like to know is how to achieve those things, and how to counter the people who have discovered that being obnoxious will run people off and leave them with less opposition. Disaffection is a powerful tool in the hands of an ideological minority who want to take over a nominally democratic group. It works for the Republicans in Congress, too.

    • http://jiminykrix.livejournal.com/ Jesse A

      Definitely an important difference between using direct democracy to DISCUSS things as a community and using it to run things.

  • Wallis

    Another infiltrator trying to co-opt OWS to the greatest scam of electoral politics. There are many of them in OWS telling people everyday to vote.

    • http://twitter.com/BooksMoore Books Moore

      No, you’re just mistaken that this was all about you.

  • Michaelarchangel

    You folks at occupy are a grace, blessing, and a new polictal movements. Remember to use your bible and obey it (and best as you can) as you are excuting the will of Jehovah.

  • http://zena-wampusskitty.blogspot.com/ Noojoke Seriously

    Remember our name? United States….when so many states, tribes, churches have created their own governments and seceded from our nation, how will we survive?

  • Bobleonard21

    Another world is possible.

  • http://twitter.com/redsteeze SLM

    Because what candidate wouldn’t want to run on a platform of sexual assualt, private property vandalism and domestic terrorism?

  • JoeHillstrom

    Somewhat agree with this… but, I have not heard Over-enthusiasm for eloctoral politics from Occupiers. That is not what Occupy is for, sure– but do we also reject working with progressive groups that go that way,? Why deliberately isolate Occupy from the whole prog/ left communtiy, our natural allies? Yet many Occupiers sneer at these groups- we’re not entitled to do any condescending to anyone yet. And we can reject the “duopolistic” 2 party system, and still have democratic procerss reforms as part of our agenda— includingtm maybe reforms of the bi-cameral legisl, etc. All these things are not part of the “laws of nature”– they are structures needing change for changing times and situations– at least! How about seeking basic democrtaic structural changes of the sort that the populsits and progresssives sought a while back– such as , unicameral legisl, proportionjal repres., instant run-off elections, easing rules for 3rd {and 4th !} parties, const reforms re corporate personhood…. It is too soon to say these basci structural changes are impossible, and it would be a mistake not to take the opportuntiyt the system prvides in the form of a Pres. election year” to focus on these things while folks are paying attention to them. PS get rid of the f—-ing electoral college, and the ofice of the vice presidency! Useless!!