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The Left and OccupyWallStreet: Purity or Irrelevance?

With “Occupy…” protests sprouting up across the country, media outlets, political entities and groups within the greater movement are speaking on behalf of the movement at large.  They’ve outlined OWS’s demands, its motivation, its ideologies and its demography.  In response, images and statements like this one are making the rounds on social networks, rejecting any labels or definition.  Some want the movement to renounce any ties to existing liberal institutions, arguing that mainstream leftism is irredeemably marred by corporate influence.  This rejection of liberal organizations by those to their left is nothing new:  a certain distrust of organized bodies within the system runs strong in the far ends of both sides of the political spectrum.  Of course, this photo doesn’t represent the official stance of the movement, largely because such a stance doesn’t exist.  But when the group does make a decision on the  relationship with the Democratic Party & other powerful liberal groups, they shouldn’t be dismissive in the name of ideology.

When a forum member at Occupy Wall St.’s website posted a proposed list of demands, it only demonstrated how poorly suited a protest group is for making policy recommendations.  Policy goes the way of the middle, not the extrema.  If Occupy Wall St. hopes to represent the 99% of Americans they claim to, they can’t capitulate to the loudest voices on the far-left, or they risk relegating the public perception of their movement to just another angry young liberal protest. Simply put:  you can’t expect America to believe that the rage is unique this time when you’re using the same signs and slogans you held up during the Bush administration.  No, what Occupy Wall St. needs is to recognize their role in changing America.  Just as the Tea Party did, they have to make Americans angry, and change the nature of the zeitgeist.  Then, let people speak with their ballots.

Of course, a main concern of the movement is undue influence on the electoral process by large corporations.  But remember that the only thing those campaign dollars can do is buy candidates more ad-time.  The way to change this is simple:  Occupy Wall St. must make the incentive for candidates & elected officials to reject corporate interests greater than the incentive to accept the strings that come with massive amounts of campaign dollars.  When the cries of protesters ring louder in the ears of moderates in the ballot box than the ad they heard the night before on television, actual change will start.  Until then, Occupy Wall St. has to stay relevant by rejecting radical control over their image and staying open to working with other liberal groups, capitalizing on those groups’ existing credibility.

During the last election, Tea Party candidates like Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle proved that pushing the radical messages of their movement would have disastrous consequences (of course, their award-winning personalities didn’t help matters).  Avoiding radicalism is especially important right now:  with “class warfare” rhetoric dominating the airwaves of conservative media, a popular movement calling for radical policy changes will only solidify that message in the minds of moderates.  I understand that “incrementalism” leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many devout leftists, but so too should ignoring the lessons from recent history and playing into conservative fear-mongering.

This may fly in the face of many on the ground, camped out in the park demanding change.  The idea of “toning it down” reeks of disingenuousness, and perhaps rightly so.  But like Otto von Bismarck said, “politics is the art of the possible.”  The message of the photo above is loud-and-clear:  we’re not going to be co-opted by existing institutions.  But outright rejection isn’t the answer.  Instead, Occupy Wall St. has to do the co-opting by bringing into its folds as many allies as it can handle, and truly representing the 99%.  It’s easy to stand on the outside and vaguely demand change.  The hard part is actually changing things.

Edit:  I made my display name less ambiguous after the first comment pointed it out.

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2 Responses “The Left and OccupyWallStreet: Purity or Irrelevance?”

  1. cadriscoll
    October 11, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    I think the most telling aspect of this article is that it is posted under a pseudonym. Whoever posted it is not even willing to post under his or her own name!

    And I don’t blame him/her for hiding his/her identity: the position he/she supports is unsupportable. Here is a movement based on the majoritarian anger of the American people at the two corrupt big-business corporatist political parties, the greedy wealthy ruling elite that calls the shots in those parties and the plutocratic imperial government that results from them; yet this author strikes right at the heart of the movement while pretending to be a supporter of it.

    The author wants the movement to turn to one of the two corrupt major parties as an end game! And his/her argument is that the occupy movement has no other choice because the only road to change is through this corrupt party and its corrupt government! But of course he/she’s wrong.

    Did the Egyptians and Tunisians turn to the corrupt governments that oppressed them and beg for change from them? Not in the end because the people were smart enough to realize that that’s not a reasonable answer.

    Have people in any revolutionary movement ever turned to their corrupt governments for relief? No. That just doesn’t make sense and I think the 99 percent is increasingly coming to the realization that the U.S. government and the two big business parties that make up the government are not part of the answer, they are the problem.

    • bpaquette
      October 11, 2011 at 3:19 pm

      It’s not a pseudonym. B is my first initial, as in Brandon, and my last name is Paquette.

      Thanks for your thoughts on the matter. You make a good point that recently, protests have had some success elsewhere in the world actually removing the corrupt elements of their ruling regime and replacing them with (hopefully) more democratic solutions. I think the point implicit in your comment is that you wish that to be the outcome of the Occupy Wall St. movement.

      I have a couple of responses to that. First, you have to be honest with yourself about the differences in magnitude between the two situations. No one denies corruption and undue corporate influence in America, but to say that our economic and wealth-gap problems are even close to those in Egypt and Tunisia is to ignore the numbers. Absent that kind of disparity, I don’t think the dissatisfaction in America can ever boil over like it did there–too many people have a lot of stability in their lives that they’re not willing to give up for a revolution.

      Of course, if you’re just saying you think perhaps a third party is the only solution, that’s another story. I’d love for a viable third party to enter into the equation. But as it stands, that’s not on the horizon, and the #OWS movement alienating itself from the get-go hardly seems like a way to bring about a third-party solution.

      You make great points, but ultimately, I think my argument is still intact: the problems in the Democratic party are not insurmountable so long as people’s votes are what keep officials in office. If the movement marginalizes itself, they’ll have missed a golden opportunity to use Tea Party-esque tactics to effect actual meaningful change. And for what? Pride & ideology?

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