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To vote or not to vote -- that is the question for Occupy Wall Street protesters and for Americans sympathetic to the Occupy movement taking place in cities throughout the US.
For many of those who intend to vote, it means casting a ballot for Democratic candidates, including President Obama. For those who don't plan to vote at all, the outcome of elections is irrelevant, because nothing will change under the current political system. Are these the only two choices?
The US is in a crisis, a political holding pattern in which Democratic presidents and party leaders keep adopting more and more Republican agenda while Republican politicians sink deeper into irrationality and borderline fascism.
The crisis won't be solved by intoning "We must vote to reelect Obama and other Dems because Republicans will be worse" or by denial that voting can have any effect on the future.
Are we locked into a rightward-sliding two-party paradigm for the rest of history? What if millions of voters began to think outside of the two parties?
We'll never interrupt the bipartisan assault on protections for working people and the environment until we change the political landscape. Wall Street banksters have nothing to worry about as long as Ds and Rs keep getting voted into office. The status quo will be validated in 2012, as it is in every election cycle, in three ways:
(1) Non-voting and anti-voting: Nonvoters have no effect on the political landscape. Occupy activists and others who have ruled out voting as a way to effect change ensure that they'll have no collective influence on who gets elected or the policies of the candidates who get elected.
(2) Zombie voting: mindless votes for incumbents and party lines, regardless of a candidate's platform, background, and qualifications. For such voters, Election Day is an empty but necessary ritual undeserving of critical thought.
(3) The mistaken belief among liberals, progressives, antiwar voters, and others that the Democratic Party offers change, that things will get better if we just keep voting to elect Democrats, or that we have to keep voting for Dems because they're not as awful as the GOP.
By justifying votes for a party that long ago abandoned its "party of the people" principles, progressive, antiwar, environmentally-minded, and pro-labor voters have participated in their own political demise. We are long past the point at which lesser-of-two-evils voting has turned into self-defeat.
The position of progressives in the Democratic Party was clarified recently when President Obama scolded the Congressional Black Caucus
for daring to complain about the White House's numerous capitulations to the GOP. Rahm Emanuel, when he was White House Chief of Staff, called progressive critics "retards."
The Democratic Party expects progressives to continue voting for a party hostile to their ideals on the assumption that they have no one else to vote for and that a Republican victory would be far worse. When genuine progressives, like Rep. Dennis Kucinich, run for the Democratic nomination, their loss is assured and their campaigns ultimately serve to herd supporters into voting for a nominee that rejects nearly everything they stand for.
As Les Leopold argues ("Don't 'Occupy the Democratic Party' -- Four Lessons From the Populist Movement
," AlterNet, Dec. 13), there is no hope for a rehabilitation of the Democratic Party. If anything, the Democratic Party is likely to jump even further to the right in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling, which struck down limits on corporate advertising for favored candidates, increasing the influence of business elites over both major parties.
Republicans are already trying to discredit the Occupy movement. We can predict that pro-GOP ads will slander the Occupy movement, and that, based on their usual tendency to retreat when challenged by the GOP
, Obama and Dem leaders will dissociate themselves from the protesters and their demands. If the 2012 presidential race is limited to D vs. R, the grievances and demands of the Occupiers will be banished to the margins by late spring 2012.
Electoral activism and street activism both have their limits and both are necessary. (Other strategies, like targeted boycotts, are effective too. Why rule out any nonviolent strategy?)
Street protest can be successful at capturing public attention, as demonstrations have proved throughout history. But it can be easy to mistake the vigor of protest movements, numbers of participants, and public sympathy with real success in changing the world.
The protests against the Iraq War during the last decade collapsed after Barack Obama's inauguration, because so many Democrats, believing they had just elected a progressive antiwar president, decided that protest was no longer necessary -- just when we needed it most.
What will happen in 2012 when pro-Dem unions and liberal groups and other Obama supporters are forced to decide whether to continue participating in Occupy protests against the Administration's policies or help get President Obama reelected? Organizations like MoveOn.org and Van Jones' American Dream are already trying to coopt the Occupy movement and spin it into "Reelect Obama." These groups will be reluctant to join the angry demonstrations that many of us hope to see outside the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina (as well as the Republican Convention, of course).
Participants in protest movements often espouse a variety of sometimes inconsistent ideals and tend to offer very general complaints and ideas for change. Demanding economic justice or an end to a war isn't a program for systematic change. The Vietnam War protests focused public opposition to the war and may have hastened the pullout of US troops. In the end, however, the protests didn't overturn the military-industrial complex or imperial culture of Washington, DC. Subsequent administrations, beginning with Jimmy Carter, maintained the pattern of US intervention in countries around the world.
In some cases, those in power simply ignore protest. The mass rallies throughout the US against President George W. Bush's order to invade Iraq in 2003 had no effect at all.
The Occupy movement must continue. We should look forward to its survival through the winter and renewed vitality when spring 2012 rolls around. But we must also find ways to make systematic changes and rebuild the political culture of the US so that wars of aggression, capitalist depredation, ecological irresponsibility (exhibited by the Obama Administration in early December during the UN meeting in Durban, South Africa, on climate change), assaults on the US Constitution, and other evils don't keep repeating every few years. In other words, we must replace people who are in power.
Vote For Yourself
The good news is that more and more Occupiers are showing interest in electoral action outside of the two Titanic parties. They've begun to embrace the vote as a strategy for challenging the corporate corruption and the erosion of democracy, in efforts like Occupy the Ballot
Alternative parties have been responsible for introducing urgent changes, whether the parties themselves have succeeded (the anti-slavery Republican Party in the mid 1800s) or failed. The list of reforms introduced by third parties and initially rejected by the political establishment includes abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, the eight-hour day and other workers' rights and protections, and civil rights for Blacks. If you're worried that the US is drifting into a new Robber Baron Era, remember that the Populist and Progressive parties helped end the last one in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Who will represent the important ideas on the electoral stage in the 21st century?
The Green Party
holds promise as an established national party, having laid a foundation for willing Occupy candidates to run for public office. In many states, Greens have accomplished the difficult task of achieving ballot status, overcoming prohibitive rules enacted by Democratic and Republican politicians to hinder alternative parties and candidates. Greens have spent more than two decades building party infrastructure and gaining campaign experience. The demands of Occupy protesters are clearly reflected in the Green Party's platform and refusal to accept corporate checks.
In New York, the Green Party achieved major-party status through Howie Hawkins' campaign for governor in 2010, fulfilling the state's stringent requirements and earning Greens their place on the 2012 ballot. New York Greens have been active in Occupy Wall Street since the protests began in September. In the 2011 general election, Cheri Honkala, a long-time housing activist and founder of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, ran for Sheriff of Philadelphia as a Green on an anti-eviction platform. Ms. Honkala spoke publicly at Occupy events about her pledge not to cooperate, if elected, with banks attempting to foreclose
on Philadelphians' homes.
Speaking on the party's hope of emerging as a permanent independent political force in the 21st century, 2008 Green vice-presidential nominee Rosa Clemente said "The Green Party is no longer the alternative, the Green Party is the imperative." Some Greens have challenged Rocky Anderson to run for the Green nomination, noting that the Green Party already has ballot lines. (Greens will choose their nominee during the party's 2012 national convention in Baltimore, July 12 to 15.)
Whether Occupy activists decide to go Green or some other partisan route, they have the potential to lead a national voters' rebellion against the Titanic parties and trigger a sorely need seismic shift in US politics.
The day a few non-corporate-money Occupy candidates are elected to Congress is the day Democratic and Republican politicians are no longer each others' sole competition. The public debate on any given issue would open up to new ideas outside of the narrow D vs. R spectrum of policies and legislation approved by Wall Street, the oil companies, arms manufacturers, insurance companies, and other corporate interests.
There is no such thing as two-party democracy. Two-party elections are a single step removed from one-party states like the Soviet Union and China. At the heart of the voters' rebellion is the right to choose whichever candidates best represent one's own interests and ideals, without being told our choice is restricted to Big Mac vs. Whopper.
Refusing to vote and insisting on loyalty to Democrats will have the same effect -- a future limited to the parties of war and Wall Street. Thanks to the momentum of the Occupy movement, 2012 gives us an opportunity to save the US from the demise of our republic, collapse of the middle class, and descent into terrain that would be familiar to Benito Mussolini in the 1920s.
Given the increasing entrenchment of corporate-money politics in the age of Citizens United and accelerated redistribution of wealth and power to the one percent, this opportunity might be our last.