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.
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 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 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.