Skip to content Skip to footer

Occupy and the Ballot Box

(Photo: zen Sutherland / Flickr)

On September 17th, I went on the radio with an almost untakable person named Kathy Wylde (“president and CEO of business leadership group Partnership for NYC”) who reliably offered the opinion that Occupy Wall Street “really set a conversation going” about “not being able to look forward to every American being able to work hard and make it into the middle class.” In fact, I noted, that was the conversation on offer, not from Occupy Wall Street, but from the Democratic Party.

Advanced, perhaps, by the Tea Party’s message being a distillation of the Republican message, the basic misunderstanding that the Occupy message resembles the Democratic message muddies thinking and yields such breathless pronouncements as “Occupy Wall Street Has Seized Control of This Year’s Political Debate,” from The Daily Beast.

However overwrought that thesis is, however foolish its articulation, it is hard to miss the Zuccotti specter haunting the 2012 election.

Specifically, Occupy Wall Street did an uncanny job of setting the stage for Mitt Romney’s disastrous campaign. Here in a candidate is the 1% distilled–so rich he doesn’t have anything productive to do with his money, palpably out of touch, indefinitely power-hungry, saturated with contempt for the less fortunate, privileged from birth, possessed of an outward appearance bordering on the clip art for “Straight White Man,” and having only managed to accumulate his hundreds of millions of dollars through mere theft and parasitism. The anti-Romney ads virtually—and, owing to the candidate’s penchant for belching comically patrician sentiments on camera, sometimes precisely–write themselves.

One result of Romney’s ideal villain status is that whatever President Obama says acquires a hint of finger-twinkling, Guy Fawks mask-wearing, arm-linking righteousness, to the undiscerning liberal ear. Thus, the Daily Beast’s suggestion the State of the Union address expressed “Occupy Wall Street’s core messages” like the vision of “an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

This is, of course, the same message every Democratic candidate always gives for every race everywhere, and not at all Occupy Wall Street’s “core.” The actual core –probably best approximated by “another world is possible” – can help shed some light on occupiers’ uneasy relationship with the ballot box.

* * *

“We are now involved in a serious revolution. This nation is still a place of cheap political leaders who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation. What political leader here can stand up and say, ‘My party is the party of principles?’”

John Lewis, now a Democratic congressman representing Atlanta, was the 23-years-old Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) when he and other members of SNCC wrote that into a speech to be delivered before hundreds of thousands of people at the 1963 March on Washington. SNCC’s statement rejected President Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill as “too little, too late.” (For one thing, the speech noted, “there’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality.”) Pro-Kennedy organizers enjoined Lewis to dial it back, so he delivered a censored version of the speech, but SNCC’s question, “Where is ourparty?” continues to distress the conscience.

Which is the party that will respond to a climate catastrophe international human rights organization DARA predicts will slaughter one hundred million human beings over the next eighteen years? Which is the party that will halt the rapid privatization of the ever-expanding prison machine? Which is the party that will redirect American foreign policy away from its global, secret, extrajudicial flying-robot assassination regime? Which is the party that will liberate our cherished “system of representative democracy” from its wholesale capture by the corporate and especially financial elite? Which is the party that can prove another world possible?

I was at the DNC, and all I learned there was that Osama was dead, GM was alive, and one builds an economy from the middle out. Watching the RNC, all anyone learned is how poor people are hogging all the money, and also Clint Eastwood ha ha ha. At neither convention was a plan proposed even to achieve “an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules,” leave alone a horizontal, co-operative, mutual aid-based society.

Both the Democrats and Republicans are capitalist parties, tinkering with oligarchy, accepting prima facie the logic of empire, and increasingly expressing the interests of the politically over-influential ownership class. When people affirm that “another world is possible,” it is precisely these consensus points to which they are objecting. Because they are consensus points, though, they will almost certainly be excluded from the campaigns, the debates, and, above all, the non-stop crush of media analysis and speculation surrounding the Vote! Vote! Vote! season.

It is easy to understand reluctance to participate in the charade.

* * *

“Occupy was successful in changing the conversation, bringing attention to the 99%, but they fielded no candidates, advanced no single unified agenda. We are seeing Tea Party efforts in play, as we head into November 6th. One year later, where is Occupy?”

That was Melissa Harris-Perry’s question on the occasion of Occupy Wall Street’s first anniversary. It invites an obvious cascade of rejoinders. What candidates had ACT UP fielded by March 1988, a year after Larry Kramer’s speech at the LGBT Community Services Center? What candidates had the Civil Rights movement fielded by December of 1956, a year after Rosa Parks’ refusal to surrender her seat? What candidates had the women’s suffrage movement fielded by July of 1849, a year after the Seneca Falls Convention? Positing that the number of Senators a movement has elected in its first 365 days is a critical metric in charting its progress pays way too much by way of compliment to the Tea Party organizational model.

The problem is that incumbent defeat in primaries is only natural, only possible, if the challenger is like the incumbent, only moreso; “Tea Partier” really just means “movement conservative,” whereas “Wall Street occupier” does not just mean “movement liberal.”

It is movement liberals, after all, who are forever fretting and fraying about working class conservatives voting against their own economic interests. But let’s split that proposition: the team of Wall Street deregulators, public education privatizers, and corporate and military-industrial lobbyists President Obama assembled for his cabinet (even before the Republican obstruction began) cannot be trusted to put forward a program in working class conservatives’ economic interests, either.

Liberals who wish conservatives would just vote liberal harbor what Chris Hayes mysteriously characterized as “the most vulgar Marxist, leftist aspiration of class-based politics” – a vision of electoral blocs arranged not by any of the millions of characteristics that make up a person’s identity, except merely economic station, presumably around the question, “Which party will provide me with more economic opportunity?” Frankly, that seems like as lousy a rubric as the proverbial Gays, Guns & God right-wing checklist. What the Vote Your Economic Interest perspective gets right (and itself perpetuates) is the irresponsible voting habits of Americans.

I forget the wit who concluded that we don’t need better politicians, so much as better voters. Perhaps that’s going one step too far, but it’s difficult to mount a compelling defense of the thoughtfulness and principle of the American electorate. Increasingly, people vote for political parties instead of candidates or issues. Party activists make a huge deal whenever they can recruit some lackluster opportunist from the other side to make its base feel reasonable and the other seem radical – think Zell Miller, Artur Davis, Charlie Crist, Linc Chaffee, &c. Obama supporters especially relish the opportunity to evince bloodthirsty jingoism, to out-nationalist the Republicans for once, to cheer dutifully as party leaders talk about the psychologically healing qualities of lethal revenge. Wave election after wave election show the voting public to throw tantrums about their anxieties by voting the baddies out, rather than undertaking any mass organization effort to get the goodies in. Occupy Wall Street didn’t fail to elect awesome, popular, progressive Democrats, the Democratic Party did.

Most importantly, normal voting Americans conclude their political activity for the year when they pull the lever to open the curtain back up. Americans are foolish to expect better candidates, given how reluctant they are to engage politically in any way other than supporting the lousy ones.

* * *

“It is a well known fact that the close-the-door button in most elevators is a totally dysfunctional placebo which is placed there just to give individuals the impression that they are somehow participating, contributing to the speed of the elevator journey… This extreme and clear case of fake participation is, I claim, an appropriate metaphor [for] the participation of individuals in our post-modern political process. We are all the time asked by politicians to press such buttons.”

Slavoj Zizek, who said that in 1999, before Bush v. Gore, before Diebold, before the ongoing Voter ID law effort, needn’t have been speaking about less literal buttons than the ones in the voting booth to get it right.

I recently found myself expressing my relief that, as a lifelong resident of New York State, my vote for President is completely irrelevant. I could vote for Vermin Supreme, Mitt Romney, Mickey Mouse or Deez Nuts and have precisely the same effect on the election as if I voted for Barack Obama.

A friend corrected me, saying that we should all want our vote to matter, even if it means we have to drink a full bottle of rum before and after voting to dull the smarting. In the current constructions of the American demographic map and electoral system, that basically means that we should each aspire to be one of a few thousand voters in Ohio and Florida. (Sounds worse than irrelevance to me.)

Neither Obama nor Romney competes for my vote. They don’t campaign in my neighborhood. They don’t advertise in my media market. They don’t need my vote. They stand to suffer no disadvantage if I withhold my vote. They would gain nothing by earning my vote. There is no reason for me to vote for President.

Down-ballot, my personal electoral efficacy remains miniscule, since, my neighborhood being so blue, none of the other races I can vote on is competitive. But I can’t vote for Elvis Pressley straight down the ticket, because at least one politician has actually earned my vote. My city councilman, Ydanis Rodriguez, won me over even before the NYPD beat, bloodied and jailed him in its eviction of Zuccotti Park: when he led an 11-mile, six-and-a-half-hour march from an abandoned building at 181stStreet and St. Nicholas Avenue all the way down to Occupy Wall Street. That was awesome.

* * *

“Political work is definitely one of the key ways that we organize. We like to think of our work in three branches – electoral work, to get candidates elected and make sure they understand the needs of the community, legislative work, to hold them accountable and let them know what they should be supporting, and direct action, if they are not meeting their obligations.”

That’s what Olivia Leirer tells me. Leirer is the communications director for New York Communities for Change (NYCC), which advocates for the most vulnerable New Yorkers on the issues that are important to them, often related to housing. She contends that political work can be a functional method of community organizing, but only taken in tandem with other components.

The way NYCC endorses candidates is by holding candidate interviews, when political hopefuls meet with members, all of whom are invited to ask questions. After democratic deliberations, the board votes on whom to endorse. For the communities served by NYCC, the laws of the greatest consequence, like those on housing, are made by city and state legislatures, not the President of the United States. “It’s important,” says Leirer, “to be engaged from the beginning of the process to the end.”

At least one attempt to re-imagine campaigning has arisen from Occupy Wall Street. “Bum Rush the Vote” is an attempt to fuse community organizing with electioneering. Ideally, candidates canvass every voter in a local race, gauge the specific needs and skills of the community members, and identify potential mutual-aid arrangements. In working with local activist groups and facilitating neighborhood assemblies, the thinking goes, the campaign can teach political literacy, foster community empowerment, and produce local politicians accountable to their constituents.

Bum Rush the Vote’s trial run resulted in the inevitable loss at the polls. Activist George Martinez mounted a primary challenge to Rep. Nidya Velasquez, (whose top two campaign contributors are, poignantly, Goldman Sachs and SEIU, and who has been in the Congress for twenty years), and managed to eke out 3% of the vote without soliciting money. Its new candidate, Jelani Mashariki, is running for City Council District 35’s open seat. Mashariki’s campaign website touts his community commitment, identifying him as “an inaugural AmeriCorps volunteer focusing in HIV outreach, an activist with Black Veterans for Social Justice, the Director of Pamoja House Homeless Men’s Shelter” and several more things to boot. Unlike Martinez’ 6-week campaign, Mashariki’s team has a year to exercise and develop Bum Rush The Vote’s campaign methodology.

The primary task of democratic engagement, as anyone who has ever been at a General Assembly deliberating a proposal knows all too well, is generating consensus. In particular, the push through history into this other possible world will require not only long-term, zoomed-in groundwork like Bum Rush the Vote is focused on, but a short-term, big-picture game – to generate mass social consensus. While the occupation itself existed, the media attention made it so that mass social consensus could be crafted just from the park and online. But evicted by force from its home and slandered in the media, Occupy Wall Street has to find other platforms from which to generate consensus. Political campaigns, especially for President, are big platforms that can just as easily be ways to get famous or get a message out as get elected. In fact, you don’t even have to want to get elected to run; if you’re interesting enough, people will pay attention anyway. Just ask Herman Cain.

There is no reason that a charismatic activist whose candidacy is predicated not on “Buy my forthcoming book” or “Give me a Fox News show,” but “Another world is possible”couldn’t be for the left what, say, Ron Paul is for the right. “[Green Party presidential candidate] Jill Stein and candidates like Gary Johnson and Rocky Anderson are the candidates that are not beholden to corporate interests,” says Carl Gibson, an activist at Occupy Houston who has gone to work for Stein’s campaign. Third party candidacies, he says, have the independence to raise questions about the big picture on capitalism, ecology, and so forth. “None of the mainstream candidates will address these issues,” Gibson says, “so we need to get someone who will.”

Gibson’s job is to get Stein into the debates. He’s up against stiff odds; in 2000, debate access rules were revised to stipulate that third party candidates must be on enough state ballots to win 270 electoral votes andthat they must have at least a 15% showing in pre-debate opinion polls, if they’re to be allowed on stage with the official candidates, the ones with billionaire support.

If I were one of those coveted Ohio or Florida independents, I confess I would feel anxious voting for a third-party candidate. I’d tell myself it was an act of solidarity with those who stand to suffer more direly under reactionary Republican government – women, homosexuals, the elderly, the sick, workers, the impoverished and the unemployed – and vote for that other ticket. The one that is not Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

Because, real talk: those two are just so much worse on so much stuff, and not even slightly better on anything.

* * *

“The most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside.”

That’s what President Obama said on Univision, mercifully stifling the implied conclusion,“by voting for me come November.” It was something of a surprise to hear him admit this, since his most ardent supporters seem intent on insisting that if Occupy Wall Street wanted to show itself to be serious, it would need to adopt an inside game.

It also seemed a departure from the White House’s previous posture regarding activists, or, in Robert Gibbs’ words, “the professional left,” which Gibbs excoriated from his podium, reflecting, according to The Hill, “frustration and some bafflement from the White House, which believes it has done a lot for the left.” Such ingrates!

When some Democrats acted like the candidates Melissa Harris-Perry would have Occupy Wall Street field, the President mocked their insistence on principle. “People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people,” he said, “and we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are.”

This is not exactly “Now go out there and make me do it”-type stuff.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously ran on “Happy Days Are Here Again,” but inherited a country with millions of workers in communist-led labor unions dedicated to class struggle and so presided over the New Deal. The record number of strikes and massive anti-capitalist rallies built the egalitarian initiatives. President Obama ran on “Yes we can,” and inherited a country whose left he expected to get in line, sign up for leader worship, and take the awful with the okay.

Without a revolutionary politics pressuring elected representatives, they cannot help but succumb to the massive pressure the global capitalist forces marshal. Even liberals, in other words, ought to get radical, even if all they want is reform. If you want a nickel, it is said, ask for a dime, not a penny.

Occupy Wall Street’s utility was that it introduced people to each other, lots of whom are interested in pushing the world beyond its current property and social relations. They are beginning to strategize about how to make that happen, on a scale of more depth and breadth than the mind-numbing reality television show that is the modern American election cycle admits of.

If another world is possible, you can’t spend all your time in the world that’s actual.

We have hours left to raise $12,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.