American progressives are buoyed by Occupy Wall Street's success in shifting the political debate from Republican demands for government austerity to the issue of concentrated private wealth at the top, but the question of what to do next is fraught with risks.
The discussion appears to be breaking down into which of three approaches should be pursued: activism (and civil disobedience), electoral (and legislative) politics, or outreach (via a stronger media infrastructure). Often the three are presented as somehow exclusive of one another.
For instance, the case for more aggressive activism often pits that priority against electoral politics and media outreach. Common arguments are that electoral politics were tried with Barack Obama's 2008 election and failed, and that there's already plenty of information in the public domain, so that doesn't have to be a focus.
However, what these arguments miss is that all three components are necessary pillars for constructing a more equitable American society.
Clearly activism can dramatize social and political ills as the nationwide Occupy protests have done in their criticism of income disparity, out-of-control militarism, and erosion of civil liberties. Yet, the explication of these problems must go beyond carrying signs at rallies.
To have broad resonance, these narratives must be conveyed in a multiplicity of ways to the American public, which currently is fed a steady diet of contrary information from the powerful right-wing media and from much of the mainstream press.
In my view, one of the core mistakes of the progressive movement in the 1970s was -- after the Vietnam War ended -- to close down, sell off or downsize its media infrastructure of underground newspapers, radio stations, magazines, video production, think tanks and even a national wire service.
At the time, the Left had a strong advantage in its media outreach, which provided independent information to millions of young Americans and also put pressure on mainstream outlets to address some of these facts. Yet soon, key outlets like Ramparts and Dispatch News disappeared, and others like The New Republic continued to publish but under new neocon management.
Much of the Left bought into the notion that the key to the future was local organizing around local issues, under the banner "think globally, act locally." Meanwhile, the Right, which was then in disarray, rebuilt itself by launching or buying up media outlets for outreach to the American people, essentially giving the Right the ability to frame national debates and rally nationwide support.
The Right's Success
Three decades later, the results should be obvious. Union organizers have even complained that when they visit the homes of their members, they hear Fox News on the TV. Many middle-class salesmen and commuters have had their political views shaped by listening to right-wing talk radio as they drive from city to city.
Without the Right's enormous advantage in messaging, it would impossible to explain why so many working- and middle-class Americans support policies that help the super-rich and hurt average people. Yet, the Left and especially wealthier progressives have done little to counter this dangerous imbalance.
So, the current proposal to emphasize activism over media -- under the assumption that Americans already "get it" and don't need to have problems and possible solutions explained -- has been tried and it has failed. Indeed, many Occupy protesters recognized the value of information by making "people's libraries" proud centers of their encampments.
The second argument for a near-exclusive emphasis on activism is that electoral politics and legislative reforms are a waste of time and that Democrats are as corrupt (or as "corporatized") as Republicans; that the only value from an election would be to mount a third-party campaign. But that approach, too, possesses a troubling and tragic history.
In 1968, for instance, the American Left had plenty of reasons to be furious with the Democratic Party. President Lyndon Johnson had dramatically expanded the Vietnam War and the party bosses who still controlled much of the nominating process had pushed through Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the Democratic standard-bearer while young activists were getting clubbed in the streets of Chicago.
Thus, many leaders on the Left advocated either sitting out the election or voting for third-party candidates as a way to express their fury with the Democrats, even if that meant Richard Nixon would get elected. But what the Left's strategy unintentionally did in 1968 was to enable Nixon to block Johnson's negotiated end to the Vietnam War and thus extend the bloodshed for four more years.