#Occupy for President: #2012 and Beyond

by Pham Binh on November 2, 2012

The 2012 presidential race bears no trace of Occupy or the militancy it spawned among Chicago teachers and Wal Mart workers. This is no accident — the U.S. political system is a machine, and this machine smothers militancy. The ugly inner workings of the Democratic part of that machine were briefly exposed when a televised floor vote was held at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) to add God and Jerusalem as apartheid Israel’s capital to the party platform at the behest of President Obama. What followed was a charade, the kind of party-line “democracy” practiced at Communist Party congresses in China, North Korea, and the U.S.S.R.:

One DNC delegate stormed out and joined Occupy. Nothing teaches that the Democratic Party does not belong to Democrats better than painful, bitter experiences like this.

But Occupy’s absence from the presidential conversation is neither simply nor exclusively the result of the rigged political system. It is also partially the result of Occupy’s anarchist ethos, a double-edged sword that has proven very effective for preventing Wisconsin-style derailment by union leaders loyal to the Democratic Party but very ineffective in terms of power politics, that is, using the levers of power — elections and elected office — to get things done.

The challenge for Occupy is to become effective at both, something the 1960s left did not achieve. For example, all the mayors that evicted us should be evicted and replaced by occupiers like New York City’s Sergeant Shamar Thomas, Oakland’s Scott Olsen, or Seattle’s Dorli Rainey. Evict the evictors, occupy the vote!

Like clockwork, every four years liberals (and a few radicals) invent ever-more morally, politically, and strategically bankrupt reasons to vote for the Democratic candidate while most radicals attack one other and their liberal neighbors for capitulating to the two-party state.

Neither side of this contentious divide has an exit strategy from the two-party plantation and so American politics remains stuck on repeat, except that the two evils presented become progressively more evil every four years.

Liberals’ perverse ritual of convincing themselves that seppuku is a lesser evil to beheading every four years has weakened left-of-center forces over the past nine presidential election cycles (since the Democratic Party nominated McGovern in 1972) to such an extent that today’s Democratic Party is to the right of the Nixon administration in policy terms on the environment, health care, and workplace safety.

The radicals who correctly reject sepukku as a survival strategy have generally not put much practical effort into building a meaningful third party that could begin to split the Democratic Party’s voting base (workers, people of color, LGBTs, women) from its funding base (big business), citing the American electoral terrain’s tremendous obstacles. Why bother starting to climb when the cliff face is so steep?

Abstaining from electoral work independent of the Democratic Party’s machinery seems like the smart strategic choice, given the far left’s meager resources and the certainty of unfavorable outcomes for an unknown number of election cycles. The problem is that unless and until we start this difficult and treacherous climb, the high ground (meaning control of the state) will forever remain in enemy hands. The radical left’s “smart” strategic choice in the short run has led to the defeat and destruction of left-of-center forces in the long run.

Think that’s an exaggeration? Look at the unions — or what’s left of them.

The failure to create an alternative political instrument or institution, a party more Democratic than the Democratic Party, is the material foundation underpinning the recurring seppuku-or-beheading suicide ritual we subject ourselves to every four years. Fear trumps correct arguments as a mobilizing force and hope trumps fear, as anyone who lived through the 2008 election knows. Telling people to “break with the Democratic Partydoes nothing to break the Democratic Party any more than abstinence education stops anyone from having pre-marital sex or sensitivity training changes how police manhandle people of color.

If anyone has the guts left to arrest the cyclical sepukku of the left, it is occupiers. Most of them were enthusiastic Obama voters in 2008 and were forced to be the change they wanted to see starting in fall of 2011.

There have been efforts to occupy the vote, to translate direct action in the streets into political action at the polls, to occupy the point of corruption.

After the eviction of the Zuccotti Park encampment, George Martinez challenged Wall Street Democrat Nydia M. Velázquez for the newly redrawn 7th Congressional District’s Democratic primary, calling his campaign “Bum Rush the Vote.” He polled 2.7% in a four-way race, reflecting the stiff competition and Occupy Wall Street’s weak mobilizing power in the district. In Washington state’s 43rd Legislative District, Occupy Seattle activist and Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant won close to 10% of the vote in primary races against two entrenched Democrats in the state legislature, allowing Sawant to run against one of them in November in the general election, a real red-versus-blue race!

On the national level, four socialist parties are following the time-honored socialist tradition of fielding four competing candidates against one another. Self-proclaimed socialist Roseanne Barr is running on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket that has ballot lines in only two states, Iowa and California. Former Democrat Rocky Anderson’s Justice Party has ballot access in 11 states. The Green Party’s Jill Stein is on the ballot in 38 states and hopes to reach 44 by November, a first for the Green Party since it had 44 in 2000 and a comeback from its low point of 24 in 2004. In a historic first, the Green Party qualified for federal matching funds in the 2012 election cycle.

The plethora of presidential candidates to the left of the two parties in 2012 is an indicator of the left’s recovery, not simply the depressingly familiar tale of a squabbling, frustrating, self-defeating, American left. This becomes easier to see when we we step back and look at the results of the past few presidential cycles.


50,999,897 (48.38%)
59,028,109 (48.27%)
69,456897 (52.92%)
50,456,002 (47.87%)
62,028,285 (50.73%)
59,934,815 (45.66%)
2,882,955 (2.74%)
463,647 (0.38%)
738,475 (0.56%)
119,862 (0.10%)
161,603 (0.12%)
Peace and Freedom
27,607 (0.02%)
5,602 (0.00%)
10,822 (0.01%)
6,528 (0.00%)
Socialist Workers
7,378 (0.01%)
11,119 (0.01%)
7,571 (0.00%)
Workers World
4,795 (0.00%)
1,656 (0.00%)
Party for Socialism and Liberation
6,808 (0.01%)
Socialist Equality
1,857 (0.00%)


The above table shows that the only significant or meaningful electoral political expression of left opposition to the two parties in the past three presidential election cycles is the candidacy of liberal consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Nader’s vote peaked in 2000, collapsed in 2004, and recovered in 2008 in terms of absolute numbers by winning almost twice the number of as in 2004, but his sliver of electoral support barely increased with the tremendous turn out of new, young Obama voters that year.

Over the past three presidential cycles, the socialist parties to Nader’s left have gained no traction with any segment of the population and continue to waste their time, money, and extremely limited resources running national campaigns not only against the two enemy parties but against each other. They have gained nothing for themselves nor contributed to the recreation of a broader socialist movement through these ill-advised efforts despite the fact that socialism is more popular than capitalism  among young people.

The 2012 race will be a crucial test for the Green Party and a smaller test for the new Justice Party since Nader is not in the race. This test will be especially difficult since the close race between Obama and Romney strengthens the appeal of the lesser evil “strategy.” Stein will be lucky to match Nader’s vote in 2000 when the alter-globalization movement was in full swing and icons like Michael Moore and Rage Against the Machine campaigned for him. This is her first national run and she does not yet enjoy a fraction of the name recognition Nader did in 2000 after three decades of activism and lobbying. However, part of building an effective opposition to 1% rule is ensuring that our efforts do not depend so heavily individuals or celebrities like Nader. Stein’s campaign should be seen as a (small) part of that longer-haul process.

As the Republican Party dismantles the New Deal and the Democratic Party produce excuses instead of action to stop them, the task of creating a viable left organization that can use elected office against the 1% is more pressing than ever.

As the liberal Matt Stoler put it:

…if a political revolution came tomorrow, could those who believe in social justice and climate change actually govern? Do we have the people to do it? Do we have the ideas, the legislative proposals, the understanding of how to reorganize our society into a sustainable and socially just one? I suspect, no. When the next crisis comes, and it will come, space will again open up for real policy change.  The most important thing we can use [the 2012] election for is to prepare for that moment. That means finding ways of seeing who is on our side and building a group with the will to power and the expertise to make the right demands. We need to generate the inner confidence to blow up the political consensus, against the railings of the men in suits. …

[T]he task starting after the election is to build this network of organized people with intellectual and political integrity into a group who understands how to move the levers of power across industry, government, media and politics. We need to put ourselves into the position to be able to run the government.

At the same time, the constituent elements that could and should constitute such a formation are scattered, divided, and isolated from one other. The rent strikers in Sunset Park have no organic link with the occupiers of Oakland’s Biblioteca; the Working Families Party of New York and the state’s Green Party work at cross-purposes with each other; the Vermont Progressive Party occupies the space where the Green Party should be.

Building bridges between initiatives that, in the big scheme of things, are up against the same enemies is no easy task, as the examples of the Greek left and, in very different circumstances, the Free Syrian Army show, but it is unavoidable and indispensable if we are going to start winning instead of continually losing.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Manuel Barrera, PhD November 2, 2012 at 5:11 pm

Earlier today on a different list (Marxmail), I made some comments regarding the Green Party candidacy of Stein and Honkala. I posted before having read Binh’s excellent post here. I am copying a portion of my comments on Marxmail here to add to the conversation. I am quite enthused at our prospects if we decide to embrace a comprehensive revolutionary policy that includes the important tactic of participating in the bourgeois elections.

The degree to which revolutionaries appear reasonable enough to engage in such political conversations as the bourgeois elections in what many working people still consider appropriate venues for important political questions the more likely we will have an audience as austerity becomes more acute and the resistance begins to mount. Already, in the Black community, the existence of Glen Ford and the Black Agenda Report has become a significant voice among African-Americans that has earned, and gained, growing support for opposition to the Democratic Party and their current mouthpiece for Wall Street. Such voices simply have not been heard for quite some time, especially within communities of color. Immigrant undocumented workers have begun to assert their belief in their right to equality and civil rights by standing up and demanding they have not only a right to be here, but that they do not need to apologize for it. Soon, women as a movement will begin to see the fallacy of Obama’s temporary “flirtation” with gaining their support just so he can get elected and then shove them under the bus along with immigrants, Latinos, Black, and working people (and, along with women, gay people will also). And as Walmart workers begin to mount some of the most significant resistance among retail and service workers, it is entirely likely that the most vulnerable components of the U.S. working class will begin to rise up in action as their predecessors in the sit-down strikes and union activism of the 1930’s and 40’s.

A leadership HAS to be built and there cannot be any shortcuts, but there also cannot be any hesitations born of concern for the “purity” of struggle; history dictates that revolutionary leadership is always going to be “impure” until it is not. Revolutionaries need an electoral strategy and we need to think like revolutionaries about it–that is dialectically under extant material conditions–not simply “be” revolutionaries who will only accept the anointed “dialectical materialists”. Moreover, that electoral strategy is just that a strategy with its own tactics based on the clear principle that we must a) unite the efforts of the working class to struggle against capital and b) build the leadership capable of taking our class to winning real democracy, not in the halls of Congress, but in the streets, workplaces, and social infrastructure where it matters.


Ben November 2, 2012 at 5:13 pm

The best argument for voting third-party this election is to help protect third-party ballot access. We are in the middle of a historic economic crisis, and who knows what could happen politically in the next four years – those ballot lines could become useful. Thus, in order to determine who to vote for (or if to vote) you really need to look at your state’s ballot access laws. In New York, is anyone in danger of losing their ballot access if they don’t get enough votes? Correct me if i’m wrong, but I thought ballot access for the Green Party depends on their showing in the gubernatorial election?

And beyond the Green Party, I couldn’t fathom ever voting for the PSL or the Working Families Party (so long as they are nominating Barack Obama).


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp November 4, 2012 at 1:43 pm

The reason I include WFP is these discussions is because sometimes they run candidates independent of the Democrats. They are what I would describe as a very inconsistent, partial, semi-break with the Democratic Party. The wobbly Greens look positively Bolshevik by comparison.


Ben November 2, 2012 at 5:36 pm

Also, it’s a little bit beside the point, but I think Nader was (is) more than a liberal consumer rights advocate. He certainly started out that way, but as the country moved right he became much more critical of the entire system, while still retaining mass appeal. I will quote Camejo here:

“Of course I had known of Ralph Nader since the 1960s. I had always thought of him as a well-intentioned, dedicated advocate for consumer rights but not as a person who understood fully the nature of our society or its two-party system, how it defended the interests of money over people or—as I would have phrased it in the 1960s—defended the interest of a ruling class. I was surprised by the depth of his commitment to American workers and to all exploited or oppressed people. Looking back it is obvious what he had to consider.

he saw the “left” as a dangerous involvement that would limit the building of effective, mass independent citizen actions that could reach millions of people. He is clearly for civil liberties and democracy and thus has no association with the totalitarian Maoists or Moscow Stalinists. He refuses to use “left” language that people will not understand. He is much closer to the culture and manner of those who fought for the rights of workers, farmers, slaves, minorities, Native Americans, and women during the nineteenth century. This is true in his language, method of organizing, and theory of how change can be won.

Large numbers of people think his decision to run for president was in conflict with his past, that it made him less effective. On the contrary, I believe it was the greatest and bravest thing he did in his entire life.
Nader’s decision to challenge the two-party system in 2000 was an historic moment and a grand conclusion to all his other struggles. This was the most important contribution to social justice he made in his life. Had he not done so, he would be regarded as a wonderful reformer who tried to make changes but never understood how America was ruled. Future generations will respect this critical and courageous stance.”


Louis Proyect November 2, 2012 at 6:46 pm


Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.


dave brown November 3, 2012 at 2:03 am

So why is this discussion starting from a clean slate and ignoring the traditional call for a mass Labor or Workers Party? Because it seems to me that Pham Binh and many around Occupy have already talked themselves out of Lenin, and are now talking about Occupying actual bourgeois political offices! Talk about Occupy Mayors! Occupy the Presidency!
This is populist bullshit. The point of revolutionary Marxists contesting bourgeois elections is precisely to say that the bourgeois state is the state of the class enemy. That no working class Mayor or Presidency will last a month in office even if winning were possible. And it is impossible. How does Occupy find the millions to fund such campaigns? Why should it even bother?
The point of Occupy is that it was already breaking with elections by Occupying Wall St. It was saying that the state’s laws are unjust and that rebellion on the streets would wake people up to that fact. Well of course, people didnt and wouldnt wake up to that fact through sheer civil disobedience. They have to put in the hard graft fight systematically for the most basic rights where it counts most in work, health, housing and education. And that is where the unions that Pham Binh writes off have made the running in the time before, during and since Occupy. In Wisconsin, Longview and Chicago, it was unions that built major fightbacks against clawbacks. In the process the mobilised militants saw themselves sold out or held back by union officials, the classic bureaucratic betrayals that have to be overcome so the unions can transform themselves into fighting and democratic organisations.
But they won’t win unless the union membership fights, challenging the labor laws and the officials who obey those laws. So the only place where the Occupy tactic can work against capital is in occupying the workplace where the capitalist machine makes its profits. Dreaming of occupying the political executive is a massive retreat from breakthrough actions such as shutting down the West Coast Ports. Its a signal that Occupy has reached its organisational and programmatic limits and is now reverting to the populist pragmatism Trotsky fought against.
His main tactic in breaking from this tradition was in the building of a mass Labor Party. A party founded on the unions in which the Bolshevik/Trotskyist faction would fight for the leadership. And today all those who stand separately self-proclaiming their right to represent the workers would then have to demonstrate their capacity to win in struggles against the state, not in making speeches to win office to fool the people.
That should be the call. Not Occupy the Presidency but Occupy the Party of Labor!


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp November 4, 2012 at 1:31 pm

The Communist International also called for occupying bourgeois political offices. Look up John Riddell’s stuff on the “workers’ government” question. Greece has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that direct action and general strikes are necessary but not sufficient to halt and rollback neoliberalism. They’ve had 16 general strikes there and the austerity continues unabated. To refuse to take power within the capitalist state is anarchism, labor party or not. In Greece, they have 3 or 4 labor parties, and we have yet to create even 1.


Louis Proyect November 3, 2012 at 10:40 am

The point of revolutionary Marxists contesting bourgeois elections is precisely to say that the bourgeois state is the state of the class enemy.

This reminds me of the article headline from a 1940 Militant:”Vote Trotskyist”. The Trotskyists were correct in opposing Stalin but always had a tin ear in terms of reaching people. Dave, a long-time sectarian from the New Zealand academy, makes the 1940 Militant look sensible by comparison.

In the USA there is zero motion toward a Labor Party. Advocating one is an empty ritual. Politics is not about “testifying”, as if you were in a Pentecostal Church. It is about taking the next step toward independent political action. For example, the Wallace campaign of 1948 was objectively a sign of trade union independent action even if Wallace himself was a former New Dealer. When dealing with a two-party stranglehold on electoral politics, you have to think in terms of catalytic action. For Trotskyist purists, there is no process; only their Platonic ideals. That is why the Trotskyist movement has pretty much disappeared. When the USSR collapsed, these groups had an unprecedented opportunity to reach workers everywhere. They failed miserably, most of all in the USA. History, an unstinting judge, has cast this movement into the ash-bin.


dave brown November 4, 2012 at 5:29 pm

Proyect if you think that Occupy’s closing down the West Coast ports is ‘zero movement’ toward a Labor Party, you are proyecting your own catalytic inertia onto the working class. It broke with the labour bureaucracy, even if briefly, and formed an alliance between unionised and non-unionised labor. The logic of that ‘catalyst’ which is ignored by Bihn and yourself in place of playing corporate political games, is the process of forming a mass Labor Party. If you think that getting federal funding for the Greens is ‘independent political action’ than this can only mean independent of the working class.


Louis Proyect November 4, 2012 at 7:21 pm

Bedggood, what do you have to show for 40 years of sectarian politicking in New Zealand? When will you learn that imitating Leon Trotsky is just a step up from imitating Elvis?


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp November 5, 2012 at 6:08 pm

Your opinion of the December port shutdown is not shared by a significant number of rank and file ILWU militants. Just in case their opinion matters to you.


Jason Schulman November 4, 2012 at 11:52 am


I’m disappointed. You should read more carefully. Mike Hirsch and I did NOT call for a vote for Obama in “Beyond November.” I would’ve thought that was obvious. For the record, we are both voting for Jill Stein.


Ben November 4, 2012 at 12:40 pm

Jason, regardless of who you are voting for in a safe state, your article is DSA boilerplate (which is probably why it was published in a faux-radical journal like Jacobin). When you say things like this, it is no different from DailyKos: “Anything a third party can do – anything a third party should do – can also be done in local and state Democratic primaries.”

And frankly, it is just Democratic apologism to write things like this: “every Democratic president since the Civil War has come from the middle of the coalition.” Regardless of where Obama and Clinton “came from”, it is pretty clear which part of the “coalition” they govern for. You and your fellow DSAers like Sunkara and Frase evidently do not have a realistic view of the Democratic party. If the last four years weren’t enough to give you a clear look at who controls that party, then I don’t know what would be. Note that the corporate control of the Democratic party has gotten much worse since Citizens United, and it was already nearly hegemonic.

It is true that the rest of us do not yet have an adequate plan for breaking with the Democrats, but we really do not need you to lecture and mock us concerning that fact – that is what these discussions are for. The first step is admitting you have a problem.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp November 4, 2012 at 1:39 pm

I read the article carefully and found no mention of Stein. What you called for in your article was far from obvious. From what I gathered, it was mainly a call for Obama supporters to not drop/hide their criticisms of his murderous policies in Pakistan and elsewhere. In practice, this seemed to me to be call for “vote for Obama if you’re not in safe states but do so with ‘no illusions'”.

If you were in Ohio, Florida, or Ohio would you and Hirsch be voting or campaigning for Stein?

I suggest next time you “make it plain” (as Malcolm X did) what it is you are calling for to avoid unnecessary confusion in the future. Including your endorsement of Stein in your piece would have helped.


Jason Schulman November 4, 2012 at 12:51 pm

But supporting George Martinez is somehow OK, despite the fact that he didn’t do anything different from what Mike and I suggested? Doesn’t make sense to me.


Ben November 4, 2012 at 1:19 pm

I don’t know about Pham, but I didn’t support George Martinez. That was a DSA waste of energies in support of a lukewarm Democrat without a radical bone in his body. I went to a couple of the meetings to draft a “99% platform” led by DSA vice-chair Steve Max. The platform was the most lukewarm “progressive” boilerplate imaginable – in fact, it was far less radical than Van Jones’ plan. Having inadvertently joined the DSA for a few months (I was fooled by the word “socialist” in the title), I have since concluded that in practice it is actually less radical than the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Netroots.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp November 6, 2012 at 1:39 pm

The article noted Martinez’s run but did not take a position on his effort. My view is that it was a mistake for a few reasons: 1) it alienated a big section of OWS; people were cursing him under their breath 2) running in a primary, especially without any effort to run on a ballot line independent of the Greens if/when you lose to the Wall Street-funded incumbent, is really just staying on the two-party plantation 3) it makes little strategic sense to run against a big money incumbent and two other challengers on top of that.

Martinez’s effort did attract support from Democratic Socialists of America, some of whom were active in Shawn Redden’s ill-fated and ill-conceived OWS “demands working group” precisely because it was a left/progressive effort within the framework of the Democratic Party. The platform could have been “100% proletarian revolution and the immediate formation of soviets” and it still would have been a strategic non-starter. Trotskyism teaches us that programs have no independent power in and of themselves; the Black Panthers were 1,000 times more revolutionary than all the American Trot groups put together, even though the 10-Point Program did not mention the world revolution, socialism, or capitalism once.

We are coming to a point in American history where we might see really explosive struggles just to defend the tattered half-remnants of the New Deal. In 1917 people made a revolution to win “land, bread, and peace,” something a hell of a lot more basic than the policywonk-ish technocratic solutions favored by the Jacobin crowd. Excuse the Russian reference but it was the first thing that popped into my brain.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp November 29, 2012 at 3:48 pm

A completely different context, but I think this gives us some idea of why the specifics of how radical a demand is less important than what people are willing to do to get it:

“Linda Archer earns $8 an hour after three years as a cashier at the McDonald’s on 42nd Street in Times Square. ‘I feel I deserve $15,’ she said.”


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp November 4, 2012 at 1:32 pm

I never said I supported Martinez. Now it’s my turn to be disappointed I guess.


Louis Proyect November 4, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Jason: I’m disappointed. You should read more carefully. Mike Hirsch and I did NOT call for a vote for Obama in “Beyond November.” I would’ve thought that was obvious. For the record, we are both voting for Jill Stein.

All that is well and good but the real issue is how to regard the Democratic Party. I don’t consider voting for its candidates a “tactical” question, as obviously the case with you and Michael Hirsch. It is a question of strategy. I, for one, am hopeful that Jill Stein breaks the 5 percent threshold. Getting federal money would strengthen the Green Party. I still have concerns about Demogreens but the fact that she is campaigning in safe states makes me hopeful.


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