One might say the ultimate dream of progressives is to replicate the Civil Rights Movement and the accompanying progress on a range of political issues that occurred throughout the 1960’s (and to some extent 1970’s). In fact, I like to talk a lot about how I believe we’re at the beginning of a “movement time”– a decade or so where social change advances quickly on many fronts. (Here’s my case for why I think conditions are ripe.) But if so, it seems like a problem that the face of progressive America is Barack Obama. (I’d challenge anybody to come up with someone else who they can honestly call the face of progressive America.)
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2013, which also happens to be President Obama’s second inauguration, like many in the media, I’m irresistibly drawn to compare and contrast the two men.
I’m not angry about Obama being sworn in on MLK’s bible. I’m a strong Obama supporter and I think by historical standards of American presidents, he’s been great for progressives.
But Barack Obama has done a good job as an American president, not as an American social movement leader. As much as the Obama team has adopted the language of organizing, as much as he painstakingly emphases passages in his speeches like “this has never been about just one election” and “this campaign belongs to you”, Barack Obama left the community organizing business decades ago. He inspires people to come to events to see him speak, and to wait in lines to vote for him. He can claim the most “liked” picture in Facebook history. But he does not inspire people to march on Washington together or engage in civil disobedience to demand change (except the Tea Party). Not a personal failing. That’s just not what presidents do.
Barack Obama is not our Martin Luther King. Barack Obama is our Lyndon Johnson, to a yet-undiscovered Martin Luther King.
I’m really interested in his new organization that he’s been asking his supporters to join, the revamped OFA– Organizing for Action. I think it could be an innovative tool for advancing the president’s legislative agenda in Congress– it’s got a big list and can probably generate insane numbers of phone calls and petitions etc. But I don’t think anybody seriously believes it’s going to be a movement-building organization like MLK’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It’s run by people with the Campaign Brain, and will never be truly independent of the Democratic Party, will never have people willing to be beaten and jailed and shot for it.
At the time of his death, King was not just the de facto leader of the civil rights movement, but also one of the nation’s most prominent labor/antipoverty activists, one of America’s premier antiwar activists. He did not need to engage in fiscal cliff negotiations. His job was instead to fuel the burning engine of pure human will that drove forward social progress– and allow the axles and cogs of the legislative machinery to be ground along by the miserable grunts of the United States Congress. As a social movement activist, he was not constrained by the demands of re-election, by the pull of donors, by the gravity of his office. He could say things like this, that Barack Obama could never say:
“In the ghettoes of the North over the last three years — especially the last three summers, as I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action.
But they ask — and rightly so — ‘what about Vietnam?’ They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”
He could take unequivocal stands for justice without having to hedge his words while simultaneously awkwardly holding the reins of a government whose laws dictate separating undocumented immigrant parents from their children and sending suspected enemy combatants to detainee camps. The leader of a movement cannot also be the Commander in Chief (unless his name rhymes with Schmitler).
We don’t seem to have our time’s Martin– a powerful, independent, multi-issue voice of the American Left, committed to organization and movement building. Maybe instead we have an equally important behind-the-scenes figure that I’m too inexperienced or unimportant to know about– a modern Ella Baker or Bayard Rustin. Maybe the army of paid staff of advocacy organizations made possible by the nonprofit industrial complex has replaced our need for a few big leaders as the pillars of social movements. Maybe we don’t need leaders at all anymore because of the interwebz and tweets and whatnot.
But I do feel like many of the shortcomings of progress in Obama’s first term were due to a lack of outside social movement. They were due to Obama being the face of the left, the glowing messiah of 2008 who allowed movement activists to chill out and let Barack take care of it. I believe the first black president is part of King’s legacy. But I think a new generation of leaders of organizations within an independent movement for equality, peace and freedom would be a more important legacy.
Community organizing is typically associated with large urban areas. Since the beginning of modern community organizing, the most disenfranchised low-income communities of color have been concentrated in urban America, so most social justice organizations grew within urban spaces.
However, today more black, Latino and Asian people live in the suburbs than in the urban core. For about two decades, young white urban professionals have been migrating back into inner cities to be closer to job opportunities and escape the long commutes of suburbia, finding them more appealing as planners and businesses have reinvested in downtowns and crime rates have fallen. The skyrocketing rents and evictions from urban gentrification have pushed low-income communities of color out to older suburbs, moves which were aided by subprime mortgages, the housing bubble and local openness to booming sprawl development. At the same time, new immigrants to the US are increasingly moving directly to suburbs and rural areas in search of jobs rather than entering in traditional gateway cities.
In this sense, California is a glimpse into the future of the rest of the country. The tech boom in the Bay Area drove working-class families out of San Francisco and Oakland and into Pittsburg, Antioch and Stockton. The housing bubble pulled black, Asian and Latino families from LA into cities on the outskirts like Riverside, San Bernardino and Ontario in search of cheap housing and job opportunities. The vast agricultural regions of the Central Valley and the Central Coast have boomed in population with Latino immigrants. The result is that not only is California as a whole majority-minority, but every significantly populated region of the state is too.
I believe community organizers should be accountable to our people, wherever they live. The fact that the vast majority of social justice organizations are still in urban areas, while most low-income people of color are not, is a serious failure of the social justice movement as a whole. We need to build our capacity to organize in many of the places where our communities live and are suffering from regressive social policies, lack of public services, vicious attacks on immigrants, etc. due to the void of progressive political influence.
Half a year ago I made a conscious choice to move to a rural/suburban area to organize. Now as my organization goes through strategic planning, I’m thinking a lot about the challenges, but also the opportunities. I think that as more social justice organizations appear in rural and suburban America, we’ll learn to better adapt our organizing models to the unique conditions here.
I know it will take much smarter and more experienced people than me to figure all of this out, and I know I’m not the first person to delve into this subject. But here are some of my thoughts so far:
1. Scarcity of progressive organizations means groups can’t specialize. There are often only a handful of relatively small organizations willing to collaborate on campaigns, they are often more service or cultural oriented, and unions, churches and neighborhood associations are much more conservative than their urban counterparts. In urban areas like Oakland, SF or LA, there is a vibrant ecosystem of organizations, all of whom have their own niches and strengths– this means some groups can focus on policy research while others focus on grassroots basebuilding while others focus on developing coalitions, messaging and strategy while others focus on electoral campaigns. Here an organization like mine has to spread itself between all of the above on multiple political issues.
2. Conservative elected officials. In most of these areas, city councils, commissions and school boards, the key decision-makers, do not yet reflect the recent demographic change. These towns have been run by “good ol’ boy” networks for a long time, and the elected officials are mostly old white men who are much more conservative than the people they now represent. They are skeptical of progressive policies and feel unaccountable to the majority of their constituents.
3. Low population density means organizing wide geographic regions. There is a pure logistical difficulty of having staff spread out over a wide rural area. My organization recently expanded to cover a region of over 100 miles. Since it takes two hours to drive from one end to the other, this means paying rent for multiple offices. Multiple offices also makes coordinating and supervising staff a huge challenge. And we have almost no ability to organize major actions where all of our neighborhood groups gather together for one rally, etc.
4. There are real Republicans here. And they’re angry. Although whites are now minorities in rural/suburban California due to younger migrants, the older generation that lives in many of these communities is especially conservative. Many openly express deep visceral anger about the demographic changes that have happened and still see the neighborhoods they live in as their homes that outsiders have invaded. Urban organizations are simply not used to encountering this type of opposition within their own base areas.
5. Local governments not prepared to provide services for low-income populations. The suburbanization of poverty has dumbfounded suburban governments who have never had significant numbers of poor residents who rely on buses to get to work, neighborhood parks for exercise, or community colleges for their children. Some services like public transit are simply more difficult to provide in suburban/rural communities, where low density makes it difficult to cost-efficiently run frequent bus routes.
1. Grabbing low-hanging policy fruit. Organizations in progressive coastal cities often try to develop new innovative policies to address issues like unemployment, environmental hazards, education achievement gaps, youth violence, etc. Many of the more basic victories have already been won years ago. In more conservative smaller cities, some of the best tried and true policies that make big impacts have never been passed. Rather than doing extensive research and convincing a local government to experiment with something new, organizations here can push for policies that have already been adopted in other areas and often have rigorous academic studies proving their success.
2. Filling electoral voids. As mentioned earlier, suburban and rural California is now majority people of color, but most local elected officials are still conservative old white men. Often these new diverse communities vote for the “good ol’ boy” candidates that don’t represent them because they’re the only ones on the ballot, or simply don’t vote for local offices at all due to a lack of worthwhile candidates. These elected officials aren’t used to competing hard for their seats and have yet to feel the heat of how the communities they represent have changed politically. Progressive, young, diverse candidates running for office fill a void and are relatively easy to elect.
3. Getting coverage in easy media markets. Although these areas have experienced rapid population growth, local news outlets have a small town mentality. They receive a fraction of the press releases, op-eds, or letters to the editor they would in urban areas and often have a sleepy civic life so actions organized by social justice organizations are shocking and newsworthy. Easy access to front page articles or the opinion page opens great opportunities to re-frame debates on local political issues.
4. Access to swing state and federal representatives. California’s most closely divided seats in Congress and the state legislature are in rural or suburban areas with changing demographics like the Central Valley, Central Coast and Inland Empire. Elected officials from either party have to compete hard for their jobs (now thanks to redistricting) and are often politically moderate, making them important targets on state or federal legislation. In comparison, organizations in urban areas with staunch progressive representatives have little ability to help pass state or national laws.
5. The community has a hunger for it. Places like West Oakland are a bit saturated with organizing. People are used to “the community man” from one organization or another coming and knocking on their door talking to them about some campaign, and are sometimes skeptical or have been burnt out by their previous involvement in a different organization. Not that any place can ever have too much organizing. But in rural and suburban communities, there’s a lack of engagement and action and people have a hunger for it.
So the bottom line: I don’t know what the ideal model for organizing outside the urban core is. But it needs to be done and an increasing number of organizations are doing it. I think there’s obviously a need for a stronger emphasis on electoral work. To some extent organizations may have to become jacks of all trades and not specialize in particular issues or strategies. Besides that I don’t know. Have any thoughts? Leave them in the comments.
For most people, the end of elections means listening to empty threats of moving to Canada, trying to fit lawn signs in trash cans, and finally returning to Pandora radio now that campaign ads are gone.
But for many political workers it means unemployment.
That’s one reason I didn’t work on a candidate’s campaign, but more importantly it reflects the fundamentally different approach that electoral campaigns take towards social change compared to community organizing.
Campaign people operate with what I call the Campaign Brain. On Election Day, there can only be two outcomes: total victory or ultimate defeat. The sheer overwhelming number of voters that need to be contacted to win an election means an election worker’s interactions with each person must be short, efficient and transactional. They can essentially only be engaged in three ways– voting for candidate X, volunteering to tell other people about candidate X, or donating to the campaign. Most people working on the campaign are parachuted in a few months before and sent off quickly after the vote is won or lost.
Even the Obama campaign, which put unprecedented resources into grassroots outreach, operated within the confines of the Campaign Brain. Despite using the language of community organizing during the election and building one of the largest organizations in the world, Organizing for America was for the most part abandoned. The void left by the Obama team’s weak engagement of its supporters after the election helped spawn the Tea Party’s rise to power. While the Obama administration folded OFA into a piece of the Democratic National Committee, the right-wing read Saul Alinsky and began community organizing.
I want to note that I don’t think electoral politics is bad– it’s a crucial element of successful social movements. And innovative groups like California Calls and Virginia New Majority are integrating electoral politics with community organizing in visionary, strategic ways. I don’t even think the Campaign Brain is bad– it’s not bad or good, it’s just how you win an election.
However, I think some people miss out on what working on campaigns won’t teach you:
1. Developing leaders for the long-term.
Organizers try to move people along a leadership ladder. As they work to transform society, they also work to transform individuals, so that over years of political involvement, a housekeeper or a farmworker becomes an important community leader. Cesar Chavez tells how he was recruited by an organizer named Fred Ross, who knocked on his door over and over and was met with refusal, until ultimately his persistence led him to the breakthrough conversation where Chavez changed his mind and began his involvement in activism. The Campaign Brain doesn’t allow for this kind of investment in people. Even with volunteers, the goal of the campaign is to increase their involvement in terms of work-hours, not develop them after the campaign is over as leaders of their own. They are given little decision-making power, training, or ownership, simply because campaigns can’t function that way– the clock is ticking and they have to win.
2. Building relationships to organize communities.
Campaigns’ relationships with community members start a couple months before Election Day and end immediately after. Campaigns know very little about their supporters because their conversations with them tend to be under five minutes. At most afterwards they get email updates about what the candidate is working on in the Capitol. Organizers know that to get people to overcome their fear and be interviewed by a reporter or speak at a city council meeting, the organizer has to build a close personal relationship with them and understand their deeper motivations. This involves a lot of sitting down and talking with them about their life that the Campaign Brain has no time for.
3. An analysis of power and its transformation.
Campaigns don’t really talk about power. The candidate would probably seem creepy. But ultimately all attempts at social change are about the distribution of power. Period. You build an organization with a hundred thousand members because it creates power that didn’t exist before to accomplish change for the lives of those people. Social movements seek to transform systems of power– like creating a union so workers can negotiate with their boss rather than passively accepting working conditions. Campaigns seek to win within the existing systems of power– if suburban white professionals are more likely to vote, resources and messages will be mostly targeted at convincing them. This is just practical. But it means that campaign workers don’t spend much time analyzing what creates power in their community, growing organizations and bringing together coalitions.
My point here is not to dismiss electoral work. It’s just to say that if you’re like me and want to learn a diversity of skills needed to create social change, there’s no substitute for spending some time as an organizer.
Like many people working for progressive organizations in California, I’m spending most of my life right now trying to pass Prop 30 and defeat Prop 32. Prop 30 is simple– tax the rich, prevent cuts to schools. But to understand what’s at stake with Prop 32, you have to step back and look big picture. Politics is about winning, but the real winners are those who control the rules of the game. And the right-wing is particularly good at thinking two steps ahead, winning the battles that change the rules.
I imagine people like Karl Rove and David Koch to be kind of like two kids I met during my very brief flirtation with Speech and Debate in high school. In fact, these guys actually looked a lot like young versions of them.
It was the first debate tournament I ever attended. I realized something was wrong with these pudgy 17-year olds when they began pacing around before the debate, performing what appeared to be a pre-rehearsed intimidation routine, casually talking to each other about the high scores they had gotten on their AP tests.
The topic we had been given was “Is Russia a threat to American national security?” At the beginning of a debate, you can set definitions for each of the words in the prompt. This is the point where I, being a typical teenager, tune out and think about sex or drugs or something. I zoned out as Koch and Rove Jr. defined the word “Russia” as “Present-day Russia or the Soviet Union” and defined the word “Is” as “Is, was or will be”. You can imagine how the rest of this story goes.
Guys like this grow up to write things like Prop 32.
Prop 32 claims to be campaign finance reform– it bans corporations AND unions from using payroll-deducted dues for political campaigns. The thing is, ONLY UNIONS are actually affected by this– they have membership dues which workers vote to have deducted from their paychecks. When Exxon Mobil wants to spend money on a Super PAC to promote environmental destruction, they don’t need membership dues– they just use the money you pay them at the pump.
Why are conservatives pushing this? Unions are the main contributors to the Democratic Party in California. They’re also the only formidable opponent to big corporations on issues like health care or the minimum wage.
Prop 32 is a perfect example of how conservatives make it a priority to define the rules of the political game.
All over the country, conservatives are trying to silence unions, who have always been the strongest institutions of the American left. They’re passing voter ID laws to suppress young, poor, and immigrant voters to turn back the clock on the demographic shifts that favor Democrats. They’re working to take down powerful liberal-leaning organizations like ACORN and Planned Parenthood. And conservative interests funded the Citizens United Supreme Court case, creating a money-megaphone for the voice of corporate America.
Sometimes it feels like we’re playing one of those rigged carnival games where you’ll never get the giant stuffed bear. Why are our efforts for Prop 30 constrained by dividing our resources to fight bullshit like Prop 32 at the same time? Why aren’t we two steps ahead? Progressives could be focused on defining the rules of the game right now, rather than playing a game whose rules were written by the other side.
Here’s a Two-Steps-Ahead Agenda for the Democratic Party
1) Reform immigration. First off, it’s the right thing to do. But it also means millions of progressive-leaning people who live in the US but can’t vote would gain that right. The Obama administration dropped the ball by giving up their bargaining power from the start– cracking down on enforcement first, rather than trading that for a path to citizenship.
2) Get money out of politics. We’re seeing a flood of corporate money in politics, and although it’s going to both sides, (Hedge fund managers like to hedge their bets) it’s decisively favoring conservatives. Democrats should be constantly bringing up new campaign finance proposals and endlessly hammering Republicans in the media every time they filibuster them. At least Republicans will be exposed for being corporate lackeys.
3) Make voting easier. The national Democratic Party should look to California. Our new online voter registration system has resulted in record voter registration. By the next presidential election in 2016, you won’t even need to register before Election Day– you can just do it at the polling booth. The GOP knows that higher voter turnout is bad for them. As Republicans push to make voting harder, Democrats must be stupid for not pushing just as hard to make voting easier.
I recently had a discussion about the weirdness of Romney blasting Obama in the debates for cutting $716 billion from Medicare. Aren’t Republicans all about cutting spending? Medicare is about as close as the US government gets to socialism and its creation was vehemently opposed by Republicans in the 1960’s. And the Medicare Advantage program, where Obamacare makes that $716 billion cut from, is widely acknowledged as a wasteful failed program, the kind of thing conservatives are always talking about cutting.
So is it simply that Mitt Romney will literally say anything to make Barack Obama look bad?
I think there’s a deeper explanation: Political ideology is mostly bullshit.
Very few political actions are actually motivated by a sweeping ideology about something abstract like the appropriate size of government. Politics is really about winning power battles to serve the interests of different groups of people.
In this case, the key fact is that suburban white retirees are an important constituency of the Republican Party. They have no particular interest in limited government, but they’re a foundation of the conservative coalition because they tend to be relatively wealthy and less government usually means they get to pay less taxes. It would be political suicide for the GOP to propose cutting their Medicare benefits, even though it fits with their ideological principle of smaller government. That’s because suburban white retirees don’t want limited government when it applies to them. That’s why Paul Ryan only proposes cutting Medicare benefits for everyone under the age of 55. And it’s also why conservatives can feign outrage when Obama “cuts” Medicare—not because it violates their heartfelt values—but because it’s something they can organize a political coalition around.
In fact, conservatives are for big government in a lot of situations, as long as it doesn’t affect the constituencies that make up their coalition:
- They’re down with big government all up in a woman’s uterus
- They like big government profiling Muslims at the airport
- They’re cool with big government stopping and frisking black teenagers on the street
- They love big government telling gay people who they can’t marry
- They’re all about big government asking random Latinos for their immigration papers
The disguise of political ideology is exposed at the local level, where politics gets batshit crazy. Take this recent incident in my city: Residents of the affluent conservative east side opposed the construction of a new apartment complex. Over 50 people, self-organized as far as I can tell, stayed at a hearing for four hours waiting to speak. Listen to their frothing-at-the-mouth-anger:
“I’m in shock,” resident Christopher Fries said. “We’re not going to give up. We’re going to file a lawsuit.”
“You’re not getting our vote,” yelled Nadia Emen, who earlier had said she got married Saturday and cut the festivities short to speak out against the project at the hearing.
Now you might be thinking: “Wait a minute… Wouldn’t a city planning commission blocking a developer from freely buying private property and building whatever type of business enterprise they chose be an intrusion of big government on the liberty of job creators and whatnot?”
But these folks don’t really care about small government. They care about their own group interests. And in this case, they are a bunch of suburbanites who really really really don’t like the idea of poor people living near them.
Although ideology is mostly bullshit, I don’t think this is a bad thing.
I’m progressive, but I don’t like big government for its own sake. I had a high school American history teacher who talked a lot about the legacies of Jefferson and Hamilton. I consider myself a Jeffersonian even though Jefferson hated the growth of the federal government. But back then, government was funded by a regressive tax system whose burden fell on the 99%—the rural farmers—and was mostly used to benefit wealthy urban manufacturing elites. If I lived in Jefferson’s time I would have been against big government too, because what I really care about is using politics to serve the interests of struggling working-class people.
I just wish we could be a little more honest and stop pretending we give a shit about philosophy.
A recent NY Times article highlighted a study of a 1990’s government program that gave subsidies to low-income urban families to move to the suburbs. The theory was that families who left neighborhoods of concentrated poverty would experience better education, better jobs and higher incomes.
The program was a complete failure in achieving those goals. Families in the program got out of the hood but stayed poor, they just happened to live in a neighborhood where there were middle-class people physically near them.
But weirdly enough, these families experienced a large rise in happiness. The self-reported happiness for families making $20k a year who moved was equal to the average of families making $33k a year who stayed.
Was this policy a success or failure? It comes down to a deeper question: What is our ultimate goal in producing social change? Is it actually about people being happier?
I’ve got a utilitarian streak in me– I’m normally more into the issues that improve people’s everyday living conditions rather than the deeper philosophical stuff, which I find frustratingly fluffy sometimes.
And my main political passion– fighting economic inequality– is partly grounded in a utilitarian view of happiness: Studies show that extra family income brings higher levels of happiness until a certain plateau (around $75k per year in the US) after which additional money doesn’t change your life satisfaction. So boosting overall economic growth does less to improve people’s lives than ensuring the economy’s gains are shared by low and middle-income families.
But if all we cared about was happiness, we might want to give up on the social movement shit and just make funny YouTube videos or build free amusement parks for the masses. Better yet we could create some sort of creepy dystopian future where everybody lies around all day taking happy pills or living in a perfect virtual reality world.
Making people happy isn’t what motivates me to do the work I do. If it was, I’d study engineering and go make iPhones. People fucking love iPhones.
Maybe I’m a disgruntled political animal who just likes the fight itself.
Or maybe there’s some larger abstract idea of justice that matters in its own right. Maybe there’s an inherent moral problem with a world where the few have so much power and the many have so little. Sometimes struggling to tip that balance of power feels like it’s not making people more happy, but maybe there’s some deeper moral value that isn’t just about happiness.
Occupy Wall Street is not the Tea Party of the Left. Those trying to predict the movement’s impact should stop wondering whether the protesters will adopt “clear demands” and look instead at strategy and structure. Pundits speculate the movement might sweep into power in Congress, as the Tea Party did in 2010. But for many of the protesters, winning the upcoming elections or passing bills is not the goal of the movement. They have a deeper discontent, struggling against the very structure of modern American society.
The Tea Party knew what it wanted immediately and took it. Far from a motley crew, the Tea Party is actually a highly regimented election machine run by some of the sharpest conservative political operatives in the country, which has harnessed the power of corporate money and grassroots organizing to relentlessly push a single legislative goal: cut everything. Occupy Wall Street’s greatest strength, its democratic spontaneity, is also a natural disadvantage that will keep it from ever becoming the Tea Party. But it could rival it by forming membership organizations to sustain networks of supporters, using an electoral strategy run by experienced progressive strategists, and rallying around spokespeople who can powerfully convey the vision of the movement.
Politicians are driven by fear and opportunity. Members of Congress will not take action unless they fear Occupy Wall Street as they did the Tea Party. If OWS rejects a legislative/electoral strategy, its absence in November 2012 will not be the fault of the protesters, but the fault of establishment progressive politicians, donors, and strategists for sitting on the sidelines.
The difference is not in type of strategy, but in the existence of a centralized strategy itself. Beneath the surface the Tea Party is run by veteran Republican Party political operatives, such as Dick Armey, who runs FreedomWorks. It is funded with a deep war chest from long-time Republican campaign donors like the Koch brothers. These strategists were the architects of the monumental grassroots pressure during the summer of 2009 that put healthcare reform on life support. They crafted the talking points that shouted down Democratic members of Congress in town hall meetings across America and jammed the phone lines on Capitol Hill. By November 2010, they had built powerful voter mobilization networks of canvassers and phonebankers, and recruited, trained, and funded candidates that swept Congress, knocking out Democrats and traditional Republicans alike.
Veteran Republican politicians like John McCain dropped their moderate leanings and moved to the right, fearing more conservative primary challengers. Democrats in swing districts feared the power of the Tea Party’s electoral machine even more. Even the Republican congressional leadership feared the threat of rebellion from the Tea Party Caucus at any hint of moderation. The Tea Party pushed their demands relentlessly, through ruthless brinksmanship over default on the national debt, government shutdown, unemployment insurance, even hurricane disaster relief. And they won big again and again, forcing trillions of dollars in cuts.
Congress does not fear Occupy Wall Street the way they feared the Tea Party. The feeble lip service of Democrats and the scornful shrugs of Republicans show they feel no urgency to meet their demands. This is not an underestimation of their strength, but a calculation of their strategy. OWS is built on disillusionment with Washington that may extend all the way to the ballot box. No one can be sure how many of the protestors will even vote in November, let alone build something like the Tea Party’s campaign juggernaut.
It’s impossible to foresee what impact the movement will have on the next election, but without a significant change of direction, it may be almost none. If this happens, don’t blame the occupying protesters. They aren’t the cause of a lack of faith in government, they are a symptom. We should blame the James Carvilles for not building electoral campaigns around this movement, and blame the George Soros’s for not funding its operations. Michelle Bachmann formed the Tea Party Caucus four months before the elections that swept the Tea Party into power. A charismatic young progressive member of Congress should be forming the “99% Caucus” in Congress right now.
The Tea Party gained influence even before the election because members knew that it would soon be at their doorstep. They were already feeling the mounting pressure of citizens who packed their events and flooded their offices with calls. This gave Tea Party organizers short-term victories, such as the watering down of health care reform and the abandonment of capping carbon emissions.
Short-term victories keep up the momentum in social movements, energizing participants who can easily lose focus or faith in their own efforts. People participating in the political process for the first time can be inspired by a new movement they identify with, but easily let down when it runs up against the wall of political inertia.
We’ll see if the Occupy Wall Street movement can win any short-term victories. It will need a clear immediate battle to focus on. This is much more important than whether or not they choose to develop a laundry list platform of demands. If they choose not to take up a legislative agenda, they could use direct action tactics like recruiting millions to switch from banks to credit unions.
If they do want to take up battles over specific legislation, like the Tea Party did with health care reform, it will require them to be feared and respected in Congress. They will need to create a situation where Democrats are genuinely afraid that if they don’t stand behind a dramatic increase in taxes on the richest 1% of Americans, they will be thrown out by a popular primary challenger from the left. Republicans in swing districts will need to be afraid that if they don’t vote against their party, a grassroots opponent will mobilize volunteers and energize donors to take their seat.
This is unlikely to happen with OWS without a significant shift in direction. They would need one short-term issue focus, a few Congressional champions to write legislation for them, a strategy for pressuring members of Congress to vote their way, and the electoral muscle to back up their threats if they don’t.
The Tea Party has a key advantage over Occupy Wall Street: easy messaging. The Tea Party has a message of destruction. Get rid of government. Take it out with a chainsaw, not with a scalpel. They don’t care how, they just want it big and they want it now. $200 billion is better than $100 billion in budget cuts. $300 billion is better than $200 billion. They don’t need a ten-point platform. They have a one-point platform.
What does OWS want? Do they want higher taxes on the top 1% for deficit reduction, job creation, social services, or lower taxes on the rest of us? The weakening of corporate influence in Washington? Stronger financial reform to prevent another meltdown? Or do they want a society that simply gets rid of big financial institutions? Do they envision the ultimate overthrow of modern multinational corporate capitalism and a return to simple regional economies, expansive social safety nets, or some sort of cooperative system?
The truth is, “they” don’t want anything. Individual people within the movement want different things—they are each disparate pixels in a picture that has yet to emerge in clarity. Whether or not to draft up specific demands is one of the main contentions between rival camps within the movement.
Of course the minute details of financial regulation or campaign finance reform should be worked out by legislators and policy experts. They can analyze the Volcker Rule and leverage ratios and disclosure requirements for independent expenditure-only committees. Those who say the people in Zuccotti Park need to work them out are ignoring the history of social movements. But unfortunately, the problems of political and economic inequality this movement seeks to solve will require extremely complex solutions, unlike the perceived problem the Tea Party seeks to solve, which only requires budget cutting.
Eventually, as the Wisconsin protesters coalesced around “Kill the Bill” and the Egyptian protesters demanded the resignation of Mubarak, successful protests will need a clear short-term demand that can be met by their targets. This gives them the first decisive victory they need to grow.
If OWS develops an immediate goal, their next challenge will be selling it to the public. The movement started with a much steeper uphill climb in getting media recognition than the Tea Party. It took hundreds arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge to be taken seriously by the press. The Tea Party had national spokespeople, such as Glenn Beck, who could articulate and broadcast their goals to millions from the mountaintop of the most widely viewed news network in America. This gave them message control, in addition to the natural message control that comes with wanting something so simplistic.
Think of any major social movement in American history. The first thing that comes to mind is often its spokespeople. Why? Not because Martin Luther King Jr. himself singlehandedly delivered civil rights to America. But because he was the spokesperson that articulated the movement’s vision to the average American. He provided a coherent “dream”, an idea of a more just world that people could picture in their minds, an imagined world that seemed better than the existing reality.
A spokesperson can make a radical idea make sense to everyday people. Without spokespeople, reporters delight in interviewing the most ignorant person they can find in a crowd and portraying an entire movement as insane. When reporters know the leader they need a quote from for every new political development, they interview them. Malcolm X was a communications genius, explaining the tenets of Black Nationalism with remarkable clarity and denying the media the ability to portray his followers as disorganized and confused.
This kind of message discipline requires spokespeople, and will be hard to enforce on a movement that is so democratic it resists using microphones. This highlights the real difference between OWS and the Tea Party: OWS is actually grassroots, while the Tea Party is artificial. Most Tea Party members are not regular struggling Americans who suddenly turned against Obama’s economic policies; the vast majority of Tea Party members are longtime registered Republicans who were excited about hating Obama. Their movement briefly captured the imagination of the country, but lost popularity as Americans recognized it as a cheap reproduction of old ideas. However, many OWS protesters are disillusioned people who are participating in political action for the first time in their lives, who didn’t even vote in the last election. They emotionally connect to new recruits in a way the Tea Party simply can’t, using the language of those who feel voiceless and helpless in the new American Gilded Age.
They are fiercely against hierarchy and wary of leaders of the Democratic Party who might proclaim themselves spokespeople. But movements tend to gravitate to charismatic leaders, and sooner or later, one will likely emerge. Elizabeth Warren seems like an ideal pick. If she risked her Senate bid to step into the front of this movement, she might become much more powerful than a regular US Senator. Whether someone like her can organize OWS to have focused message control will determine much of the movement’s success.
In retrospect we imagine nebulous movements, but they are built on institutions. No one joined the Civil Rights Movement. They didn’t come to a Civil Rights Movement meeting or take a Civil Rights Movement flier. They came to a SNCC meeting or an SCLC meeting or a CORE meeting. Those organizations created long-term strategies around specific issues, built networks of members on personal relationships, and executed actions around which they could mobilize people and pressure decision-makers to act.
Movements are sparked before institutions. Oddly enough, the Tea Party was ignited by an on-air rant from a stock trader turned financial reporter. OWS was launched by Canadian activist magazine Adbusters.
But sooner or later, without institutions to actively organize members, the rallies start to get smaller and smaller, while elected officials dismiss yet another has-been movement which lost its glamour. Some activists are professional rally-starters who know only one tactic: mobilizing, which they confuse with organizing. The difference between mobilizing and organizing is the ability to drive something long-term through relationship building and continuous leadership development. It takes little more than putting up posters or making a Facebook event to start a huge rally the day the government announces an unpopular decision. The question is: can you bring out a few thousand people again when lobbyists try to silently kill your bill in committee? Do you even know the names of the people you mobilized?
If I Google “Tea Party,” on the first page of results I find the Tea Party Patriots, the Tea Party Express, Tea Party.org and the Patriot Action Network. I can sign up to volunteer, donate and find events in my area on the first page of each of their websites.
This may happen with Occupy Wall Street, but it hasn’t yet. To win long-term goals like abolishing corporate personhood, requiring a constitutional amendment, OWS needs a sustainable movement. It will need to create organizations, which may not be able to function on general assembly consensus-only decision-making. A movement should never have one central organization. But OWS could, like the Tea Party, end up with several core organizations.
The Tea Party is an unusual movement with its ranks of millions ready to hit the pavement, but the checkbook of a movement whose goals coincide perfectly with corporate America. I don’t think this advantage is unbeatable. A “99% PAC” could raise Obama-esque money online from small donors and potentially go head to head against big oil, banks, and insurance companies. With the movement behind them, a fiery populist candidate could run for senate raising money online from individuals, not corporations.
This movement may build institutions as it matures. But it also may reject institutions as undemocratic and stifling. Many people, probably a few of my friends, would read this essay and complain that I’m attempting to introduce hierarchy, bureaucratize the movement or let it be co-opted by unions or the Democratic Party to win elections. But if this movement is still standing strong two years from now, it will have built long-lasting institutions to carry on the fight.
This country needs a new powerful and enduring grassroots movement with fresh ideas and passionate energy. It has not been political parties, but movements like these that have changed history. But for every successful movement, there have been ten revolutions that suffered quiet deaths of irrelevance, movements which have flashed and disappeared, slipping into the footnotes of history. If America has any chance of reversing our rampant political and economic inequality, it will need a movement like this to be strategic, to move us, to last, and to make us feel like we own our country again.