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.:
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 Party” does 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!
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.
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.