Lessons from Egypt: Occupy the Democratic Party

Lessons from Egypt: Occupy the Democratic Party

by David Atkins

The election results in Egypt are in. As expected, the Islamists have taken a commanding lead:

Islamists claimed a decisive victory on Wednesday as early election results put them on track to win a dominant majority in Egypt’s first Parliament since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the most significant step yet in the religious movement’s rise since the start of the Arab Spring.

The party formed by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s mainstream Islamist group, appeared to have taken about 40 percent of the vote, as expected. But a big surprise was the strong showing of ultraconservative Islamists, called Salafis, many of whom see most popular entertainment as sinful and reject women’s participation in voting or public life.

Analysts in the state-run news media said early returns indicated that Salafi groups could take as much as a quarter of the vote, giving the two groups of Islamists combined control of nearly 65 percent of the parliamentary seats.

Most media sources are concentrating on the further rise of conservative religious power in the Middle East after the election. But that perspective obscures a greater lesson: in electoral democracy, those who are best organized are the ones who usually win, no matter how inspiring the revolutionary movement may be.

Consider Egypt: in the months and days leading up to the vote, there were multiple calls to delay the election. Why? Because in the divide between secular and religious revolutionaries in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis were much better organized than the more liberal opposition.

More secular and liberal Egyptians wanted more time to organize their political parties; the Brotherhood wanted to hold elections as quickly as possible. The Brotherhood got its wish, and the result is that the better organized Islamists won the day handily, in spite of the fact that it was the secular and liberal Egyptians who helped propel the anit-Mubarak regime forward.

That victory came at the expense of the liberal parties and youth activists who set off the revolution, affirming their fears that they would be unable to compete with Islamists who emerged from the Mubarak years organized and with an established following. Poorly organized and internally divided, the liberal parties could not compete with Islamists disciplined by decades as the sole opposition to Mr. Mubarak. “We were washed out,” said Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, one of the most politically active of the group.

Although this week’s voting took place in only a third of Egypt’s provinces, they included some of the nation’s most liberal precincts — like Cairo, Port Said and the Red Sea coast — suggesting that the Islamist wave is likely to grow stronger as the voting moves into more conservative rural areas in the coming months. (Alexandria, a conservative stronghold, also has voted.)

The preliminary results extend the rising influence of Islamists across a region where they were once outlawed and oppressed by autocrats aligned with the West. Islamists have formed governments in Tunisia and Morocco. They are positioned for a major role in post-Qaddafi Libya as well. But it is the victory in Egypt — the largest and once the most influential Arab state, an American ally considered a linchpin of regional stability — that has the potential to upend the established order across the Middle East.

There is a lesson here. No matter how well-intentioned the revolutionaries and no matter how successful the revolution, at the end of the day organizational power will step in to win the day. It always does. That organizational power can be a force for good or for ill. But especially in democratic societies, the ability to leverage organized support toward specific ends will always trump anarchic mass sentiment. There's a reason that feel-good stories like the original Star Wars trilogy end with the death of the Emperor and the destruction of the Imperial regime; good storytellers spare us the ugly aftermath of the fractious rebuilding process because the results are rarely pretty.

It's easy to understand the sentiments of those who seek anti-organizational and apolitical solutions to America's problems, and who see the system as so hopelessly corrupted that it's barely worth voting much less becoming organizationally involved. But unfortunately, those who either refuse to or fall behind in participation in the process, like the liberals and secularists in Egypt, will find themselves at the mercy of those who do.

Insofar as the Tea Party was ever anything but a Koch-funded and Fox-News-promoted astroturf vehicle on the Right (and there is much evidence that it was never anything but a Republican rebranding campaign), it was co-opted and subsumed within the conservative organizational framework. Any anti-Wall Street sentiment that ever existed within the Tea Party has been crushed between Republican organizational dynamics. To its credit, the Tea Party did attempt to organize within and against the GOP insofar as it could in order to change the GOP to suit its more libertarian viewpoints. That has resulted in a shift of the Republican Party distinctly to the Right, partly as a result of rabid engagement against against mainstream Republican candidates. Remember that the Tea Party actually spent most of its time engaged in primary wars within the GOP, demanding allegiance to its goals from would-be politicians. But most of the energy behind that movement has largely dissipated, as the GOP now faces an all-too-establishment choice between Romney and Gingrich.

Similar lessons will apply for the Occupy movement. No matter how successful the movement may become in terms of shaking the foundations of the financial elite, power will ultimately be leveraged at the ballot box or not at all. As in Egypt, those who ignore or are unable to leverage the power of organization will be condemned to be subject to those who do have that power.

As we approach 2012, Occupiers will face of a myriad of choices regarding how and to what extent to engage in electoral politics. If they choose not to engage at all, the movement will ultimately fizzle and/or be co-opted. If they choose to engage simply on behalf of (mostly Democratic) candidates who support justice for the 99% against the 1%, all that will be accomplished is opening up the gap for Democratic victories in the endless electoral pendulum, without extracting necessary concessions from Democratic politicians in terms of governance on behalf of the 99%. If they choose to engage on behalf of some third party, they will ultimately be ground into the dust like every other third party movement in recent history.

My advice: Occupy the Democratic Party. If Occupiers want to make a real difference over the long-term, they will do what the secularists in Egypt would have had to do from nearly the beginning: organize, organize, organize. In the American two-party system, that means taking the Democratic Party over from the inside just as movement conservatives took the GOP over starting in the 1960s and 1970s, when the hippie revolution gave way to Richard Nixon, then Jimmy Carter, then Ronald Reagan.

If Occupiers can bend the Democratic Party to their will now and over the long haul, they will have made a lasting accomplishment that cannot be co-opted. If they eschew organizational power and electoral processes as unclean and beneath their lofty goals, they will suffer the same fate as young liberal Egyptians have at the hands of the conservative religious parties.

Update: Turns out George Lakoff said pretty much the same thing a few days ago. And no, I swear I hadn't seen that when I wrote this. It's the next logical step.

To clarify, occupying the Democratic Party doesn't necessarily mean getting involved within the Party--though it certainly can mean that, and that's the route I've chosen to take. But it can also mean doing something similar to what Grover Norquist has done: separate organizations that are designed to instill fear of the base and of primary challenges in Party politicians. For those who follow Southern California politics, Marcy Winograd may not have defeated Jane Harman, but the threat made Harman vote much more progressively in Congress.