Democrats: A necessary but insufficient condition
by David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")
The Occupy Wall Street protests are doing more than just galvanizing anger against the predatory practices of the financial sector. They are also providing the latest excuse for the left to self-immolate in the most recent version of the same argument that has been tearing natural allies apart since at least the turn of the millennium. Most of the players in this conflict position themselves along the same battle lines as the combatants in the so-called "Obama Wars" that have been all the rage on the left for the last two years.
In one camp are the more institutional lefties who tend see the protesters in New York as misguided idealists who don't understand that banging drums and shouting slogans in a public park will do nothing to create real change. According to followers of this line of thinking, the protests will be useless until and unless the energy behind the protests is at least partially redirected toward electoral activism to elect more (and hopefully better) Democrats.
On the other side are a combination of old-school issue activists and new progressive movement types who insist that electoral politics are useless, and that only a mass popular movement to raise global class-based consciousness will accomplish needed goals. According to subscribers to this line of thought, Democrats and Republicans alike are equally guilty of subservience to Wall Street, and change will come about entirely outside the realm of electoral politics, which has failed utterly to create needed changes.
Just as in the tired "Obama wars," both sides are right. And both are wrong.
The institutionalists are wrong for a wide variety of reasons, not least of which is the obvious reality that the last 30 years of adherence to neoliberal ideology, anti-government fetishism and kowtowing to the financial sector has occurred under Democratic and Republican administrations alike in an unending continuum from Reagan to Bush to Clinton to Bush to Obama. It has occurred under divided government and single-party-majority governments alike, on both Republican and Democratic watches. Bill Clinton signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley act and declared the era of big government to be over. Wall Street bailouts occurred in a bipartisan fashion, and in fact garnered more support from Democrats than from Republicans. And then President Obama, rather than try to pursue the sort of change his supporters believed in, proceeded to put the likes of Tim Geithner and Larry Summers in charge of his economic policy, rather than the likes of Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Volcker and Paul Krugman.
The notion that electing more Democrats alone will solve any of the grievances enumerated by the protesters is comical. So when institutionalists argue that protesters should channel their activism into electoral politics, they come off as 1) clueless about what is actually motivating the protesters; 2) in the dark about the bipartisan nature of the subversion of democracy beneath the iron fist of deregulatory ideology; and at worst 3) self-serving hacks attempt to co-opt legitimate frustration in the service of their own careerist ends. The institutionalists bring these sorts of accusations on themselves, despite the fact that most of them volunteer their time for institutional activism with little or no hope of personal return, and the fact that many of the Democrats in Congress actually agree with most of the protesters' platform.
On the other hand, those who completely reject electoral politics are almost equally misguided. They either vastly overestimate the power of popular protest to effectuate change, or vastly underestimate the utter determination of conservatives in power to stop any changes from taking place. They fail to account for the fact that politicians in the United States have never acted out of fear of mass popular revolt alone, and that year after year after year of gigantic protests against the Vietnam War did little to stop the needless bloodshed in Southeast Asia.
They also do themselves no favors by deeply maligning the many activists who agree 100% with their platform, but have taken a more institutional approach to resolving their grievances. This includes a large number of Democrats toiling in Congress and statehouses nationwide who are attempting to do their best to resolve these problems within the framework the U.S. Constitution allows, and receive nothing but scorn from these activists in return.
It is especially important for anti-institutional progressives to take into account that there are a large number of politicians in this country who are accountable to an electoral base that is, as matter of cultural identity, directly opposed to the protesters' beliefs and deaf to their concerns. They will not be persuaded, they will not be moved and they cannot be reached. The latest GOP presidential debates are not being showcased on behalf of big money donors, but on behalf of a large swath of Americans who actually agree with the insanity being peddled on stage.
So for the anti-institutionalists, realizing one simple point is crucial: as long as Republicans are in power, no amount of protest will affect the American government. Over a million people could camp out on the National Mall for months at a time, and nothing would change. Speaker Boehner and his caucus of Tea Party nutcases simply will not be moved except by one action and one alone: booting them out of office. The chances of their addressing the grievances of the majority of the American People are less than nil, regardless of the public pressure placed upon them.
And yet, for the institutionalists, it's also critical to recognize just how damaging the last 30 years of Democratic acquiescence to conservative ideology has been for not only the Democratic brand, but for the nation's belief in the power of electoral politics to create change.
It is quite literally impossible to say with a straight face that working to elect more or even better Democrats will actually create the change necessary to address the grievances being expressed in Zuccotti Park. It's laughable. That ship has been sailing away for decades, and disappeared completely over the horizon with the disappointment of January 2009 through November 2010 and beyond. It is painfully obvious that electoral politics alone are utterly inadequate to deal with the nation's problems.
The reality is that putting Democrats in power is a necessary but insufficient condition for creating real change in this country.
Republicans are ideologically opposed to creating the necessary changes, and are more afraid of being primaried by an even more crazy conservative, than of even the biggest protest movements from the left. Democrats, meanwhile, are ideologically compatible with most of the changes, but are variously stymied by the system, blinkered by a desire for "compromise," fearful of conservative anger, or corrupted by the influence of big money.
In order for change to take place, good Democrats do need to be in power. But only an angry and motivated populace angry with both Parties and strongly intent on holding Democrats accountable will scare and motivate Democrats enough to do what they were elected to do.
LBJ wouldn't have been pushed to do the right thing for civil rights without MLK. But neither would MLK have brought his dream to fruition without a president in power with the courage to enforce desegregation.
Ultimately, the institutionalists need to allow the Occupy Wall Street protests to develop organically without attempting to convert them into electoral activism in any form. Supporting the protests is perhaps the most important thing progressives can be doing right now. As Robert Cruickshank tweeted:
We need to focus on generating the waves, not recruiting people to surf them.
But on the other hand, it would behoove movement progressives not to dismiss the arena of electoral politics and those who engage in it. If Mitt Romney becomes president or John Boehner remains the House Speaker, it won't matter how big or successful the protests become. For things to really work, Democrats will have to be in power and a powerful progressive protest movement with a healthy distrust of institutional Democrats will need to be in place to hold them accountable.