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.
Let me start off by saying that elections get way more emphasis than they should, and that most of the real work of social change happens in the aftermath, pressuring elected officials to do the right thing.
But that being said, elections really do matter, and this one was truly beautiful.
To me this election confirmed my belief that we are at the beginning of a movement time, one of those eras when waves of progress seem to come all at once. You’re looking at me like I’m crazy. But it’s a lot more messy and uncertain when you’re experiencing it live than when we look back in the history books. Here’s my case for why I think progressives are going to win huge victories in the coming years.
But here’s my 7 Reasons Why Last Night Was The Best Night Ever:
1. Barack Obama is our president and we never have to hear about Mitt Romney again. In terms of policy change, I’m not that excited about this– honestly the next four years will look like the last two years– Republican Congress, total gridlock, not much getting done. Basically they just gave a black man the worst job in the world for another four years.
What was significant about the presidential race was that in the age of Citizens United, Wall St. wasn’t able to buy this election. Finance normally hedges their bets by giving to both parties or the expected winner. But after the major financial reforms enacted by the Obama administration, they went all in for Romney. And lost. When was the last time Wall St. lost anything except your money? Now I hope Obama has the cojones to give them some ice cold retribution. I’m also happy that in the darkest hour of the campaign, right after the first debate, I still called the election for Obama. Saying I told you so is the best.
2. The youth vote made an even larger impact than in 2008. I was so sick of all the bullshit narratives about apathetic young people who came out in 2008 for a fluke because they were brainwashed by Obama and won’t vote anymore because now they’re stupid and lazy blah blah blah. Oh what’s that? Young people made up 19% of the vote in 2012, EVEN MORE than in 2008? SUCK. ON. THAT. SHIT.
3. California passed Prop 30 and defeated Prop 32. This is near and dear to my heart because it’s what I’ve been working on this election. I think the incredible thing about Prop 30 is it’s a turning point. Since Prop 13 passed in the “tax revolt” of the late 70’s, California has been on the path of endless budget cuts to education. Yesterday we turned this around– the voters chose to invest in our youth and our future. In concrete terms, this resulted in a tuition freeze at the UC’s this year instead of a 20% fee hike. And Prop 32, which may have actually been more important than 30 for big picture strategic reasons, went down too. This all despite millions of dollars spent against us by billionaires and Super PACs who are now being investigated for money laundering. I worked with dozens of high school and community college students who spent countless hours volunteering to get out the vote because they knew their future depended on it. I’m so proud of them.
4. In California, Democrats will likely win 2/3rds supermajorities in both the State Assembly and State Senate. Some close races have ballots left to be counted, but newspapers are already calling it. This is a big fucking deal. Much of California’s budget craziness is due to the fact that you need a 2/3rds vote to raise taxes, or until recently, to approve the budget at all. The California Republican Party has become increasingly isolated and radical, viewing any compromise as a sign of weakness, making it nearly impossible to get the couple of extra votes needed to pass no-brainer bills like the Middle Class Scholarship Act. The bill would have closed a corporate tax loophole that benefits out-of-state corporations and used the money to slash college tuition by 60% for most students in California but failed this year. But this also opens up huge new opportunities. Some of these Dems are pretty conservative, and will be reluctant to vote for more revenue. But with a Democratic supermajority and some good organizing, you could potentially get single payer health care in California, or universal preschool, or dramatically reduce college tuition. As I said, big fucking deal.
5. The next Congress will have more women than any Congress in American history. Women candidates broke records in both the House and the Senate. One of these women, Tammy Baldwin, is the first openly-gay Senator ever.
6. Marriage equality made major strides. Maine and Maryland voted to legalize gay marriage, and Washington looks like it’s on its way. The tide is moving, it’s only a matter of time.
7. We can all stop talking about Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney!
Also, bonus points. For my Ventura Couny folks, we were in one of the closest congressional races in the entire country, and the Democrat, Julia Brownley squeaked out a victory over Tony Strickland, a politician I personally can’t stand. And Measure S in Berkeley, which would have criminalized the homeless for sitting on the sidewalks, was defeated.
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.
The media’s been blathering on, with a nauseating amount of corny sports/war metaphors, about how Romney dominated Wednesday’s debate against President Obama. I agree that Romney did better. And it did move the polls a bit.
But I will still literally bet anyone cash money right here right now that Obama’s going to win.
Why? Check out the graph on the right.
That’s because swing states are where the real campaigning happens. If you live in California like me, you might forget what a presidential campaign actually looks like. Obama and Romney volunteers don’t knock on your door or call you at night, their fliers don’t come in your mailbox, and their ads rarely show up on your TV. But in places like Ohio, every four years this shit called a campaign goes down on your block.
Here’s what that graph on the right means: Obama’s campaign team is just plain smarter and harder than Romney’s. It doesn’t show up in most of the country. But in the swing states, it’s very obvious that the Obama team is killin it.
Which is why Nate Silver, whose statistical model is probably the best in the game right now, calculates Romney hasn’t had more than a 1-in-3 chance of winning since late August. He puts Obama at a 78.4% chance of winning right now, which is down a bit since the debate. But it’s not nearly enough to really turn things around for Romney.
That’s because debates just don’t matter that much. Most debate viewers are people who follow politics and have already made up their minds. Think about all the swing voters you know. How many of them actually watched the debate?
What does sway voters, in the crucial swing states, is a passionate 20-something-year-old volunteer knocking on their door on a Wednesday night after dinner, and maybe fumbling the script they’re supposed to read a little bit and fidgeting with their clipboard, but ultimately getting some main points across and more importantly making a personal connection.
That’s where the Obama team is kicking the ass of the Romney team right now. And that’s why Obama is going to win.
The point I’m ultimately getting at here is I think most political journalists should be shipped off to some forsaken island and forced all day to watch two ants race across the barren rocks for moldy leftovers and report about it to each other.
They spend all their time on gaffes and speeches, but rarely cover the grueling behind-the-scenes work that actually wins or loses political battles, which really hurts the feelings of people who do that grueling behind-the-scenes political work.
But it’s not just my personal beef. This article from the NY Times sums up perfectly how political reporters just can’t keep up with how modern campaigns work:
Journalists tend to mistake the part of the campaign that is exposed to their view — the candidate’s travel and speeches, television ads, public pronouncements of spokesmen and surrogates — for the entirety of the enterprise. They treat elections almost exclusively as an epic strategic battle to win hearts and minds whose primary tools are image-making and storytelling.
But particularly in a polarized race like this one, where fewer than one-tenth of voters are moving between candidates, the most advanced thinking inside a campaign is just as likely to focus on fine-tuning statistical models to refine vote counts and improve techniques for efficiently identifying and mobilizing existing supporters.
The bumbling incompetence of political reporters doesn’t just misinform the public. It implies that most of the work done by campaigns doesn’t matter. Which is funny because if they didn’t, candidates would just make speeches all day instead of spending so much money hiring field organizers all over the country.
So I just want to counter the bullshit by telling all the 22-year-olds with clipboards out there that you’re winning this thing, even if Barack Obama is a shitty debater. The proof is in the numbers.
For a person of color running for office, a hint of the radical left is the kiss of death. We live far from a “post-racial society”, but most voters do seem to be willing to give a candidate with a funny name who looks different from them the benefit of the doubt as long as they’re squeaky clean all-American on the inside. However, that trust can evaporate quickly if the candidate evokes memories among white voters of the more confrontational racial politics of an older generation.
The speculation of San Antonio Mayor and DNC keynote speaker Julian Castro being the first Latino president someday makes sense with almost mathematical precision. A charismatic Latino governor of Texas who carried the massive state for the Democratic Party in 2024ish when changing demographics have made it possible would lock down the electoral map.
However, the right wing is great at playing the guilt by association game. And Julian Castro, like many young politicians of color who awkwardly bear the label of being “post-racial”, also holds the liability of being tied to the radical left on the national stage.
Castro’s mother, Rosie Castro, was an activist in the Chicano Movement of the 1970’s who helped found a political party called La Raza Unida and unsuccessfully ran for San Antonio city council. Julian grew up an activist baby, marching in rallies with her as a kid and working on campaigns as a teenager. He credits his mother for his political consciousness.
For a delightful preview of how this story will be told as he runs for higher office, check out this profile on conservative blog Breitbart.com:
Indeed, he, along with his twin, Joaquin, currently running for Congress, learned their politics on their mother’s knee and in the streets of San Antonio. Their mother, Rosie helped found a radical, anti-white, socialist Chicano party called La Raza Unida (literally “The Race United”) that sought to create a separate country—Aztlan—in the Southwest.
Today she helps manage her sons’ political careers, after a storied career of her own as a community activist and a stint as San Antonio Housing Authority ombudsman.
Far from denouncing his mother’s controversial politics, Castro sees them as his inspiration. As a student at Stanford Castro penned an essay for Writing for Change: A Community Reader (1994) in which he praised his mother’s accomplishments and cited them as an inspiration for his own future political involvement.
If the story seems all too familiar, it’s because it feels exactly like the attacks on Barack Obama’s associations with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Van Jones, Bill Ayers, and his own mother and father.
A perfect example of how these attacks easily tap into a latent fear of The Other lying in the heart of voters is the new movie just released called 2016: Obama’s America. Never heard of it? Well it’s grossed over $20 million in the last week and a half, making it the fifth highest grossing political documentary in American history. It’s probably because you’re an urban coastal college-educated liberal and all your friends are too. Go outside sometime.
Written by Dinesh D’Souza, it closely mirrors a book written by the same man, called The Roots of Obama’s Rage, which essentially claims that Obama, in his desire to bring himself closer to his estranged father, adopted the elder Obama’s Kenyan anti-colonialist anger and secretly hates America, blah blah blah. You can find a good synopsis here.
I suspect as more and more “The Next _____ Obama” candidates start to pop up, these young progressive people of color will be increasingly witch hunted with ties to the radical left dug up among family, friends, professors, spiritual leaders, and coworkers.
Because there are a lot of politically radical older people of color out there and young people of color know them. They might be close family. But even for those without politically active parents, most people who enter the world of politics, especially those breaking boundaries, usually do so with the guidance of older mentors and advisers.
Maybe Barack Obama’s father did have anti-colonial anger. Maybe it’s because the British committed atrocities in their colonization of Kenya and much of the suffering in Africa today is connected to the aftermath of colonialism. And I can imagine that Rosie Castro’s life growing up as the daughter of Mexican immigrants in Texas in the 1950’s might make her support the radical edge of the Chicano Movement.
The truth is, people of color have faced a lot of really fucked up shit in history. And some people are, not surprisingly, going to be mad about it. And although young people of color who run for office haven’t personally experienced Jim Crow or the Japanese Internment, and many of their feelings toward racial politics might hold more hope than anger, they will probably know at least one person in their community who is angry about American history.
All of this is not to say that Julian Castro shouldn’t run for president. It’s meant as a warning to people like me, young people of color who have contemplated running for office and have family members who would end up on one of Glenn Beck’s chalkboards if we ever did. It’s to say that America is not post-racial, there are deep wounds waiting to be peeled open, and anyone who wants to run for office should be prepared for their opponents to deliberately pick at those racial wounds until they bleed.
That being said, Castro 2024!
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.