Election Day victories for our side

November 15, 2011

The Occupy protest movement has shifted even mainstream politics to the left--but activists can't allow the power of the struggle to be co-opted by the Democrats.

THE RESULTS of midterm elections held across the country on November 8 gave people on the left side of the political spectrum plenty to cheer about.

At the top of the list was the overwhelming rebuke to Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich and his attempt to strip collective bargaining rights from public-sector unions. Some 61 percent of Ohio voters rejected Kasich's attempt to scapegoat government workers for the state's budget crisis. In fact, more Ohioans voted to defeat Issue 2 than voted for Kasich last November.

No less important, yet perhaps more unexpected, was the rejection--by a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent--of a Mississippi ballot measure that would have defined a fertilized human embryo as a "person" in the state constitution.

This anti-abortion measure, which would also have banned common forms of birth control, had the support of many of the state's political leaders--both Republican and Democratic--and of the leading Republican contenders for president. All of them thought passage of this extreme "personhood" amendment was a foregone conclusion in conservative Mississippi. Mississippi voters proved them wrong.

In two other very noteworthy results, voters in an Arizona state senate district recalled the reactionary Tea Party hero, Senate President Russell Pearce, author of the anti-immigrant "papers please" law SB 1070--and Maine voters exercised a "peoples' veto" of a conservative attempt to repeal same-day voter registration in the state.

The results had liberals in an upbeat mood. As an e-mail from the People for the American Way put it:

In the nationally watched races and ballot initiatives across America, progressives won across the board. These hard-fought victories are not just wins for people in these states. The results have important ramifications moving forward into the 2012 elections, with this flexing of political muscle providing a good source of hope that maybe 2012 can be our 2010.

The e-mail's mention of "2010" refers to the Tea Party-infused Republican sweep of elections in the states and the Congress.

So what changed from 2010 to 2011? While each of these state-level election results had their own dynamics, we can make some generalizations about the changed political climate.

In 2010, Republicans benefited from the terrible economy and widespread disillusionment in the Democratic "base" over President Obama's failures. In 2011, Republican governors and state legislatures have passed a wish list of right-wing legislation that has actually made ordinary peoples' lives worse. Last year, conservatives could pose as an alternative to a lousy status quo. But when people got the chance to see what "solutions" conservatives had to offer, millions said "no thanks."

The 2011 results may also reflect something bigger than simply that the public wanted to throw out different bums in 2011 than they did in 2010. After all, the most noteworthy results came in referenda, rather than candidate-centered elections. So there is a more direct link between the election result and an actual endorsement or rejection of a political position.

ELECTIONS ARE part of the humdrum of American politics, tending to reinforce "acceptable" ways of working for social change as well as many of the dominant political ideas in society. Participation in election campaigns isn't--for most people--a radicalizing experience, at least in comparison to mass social movements.

Genuine social movements transform the consciousness of millions of people at once. They can push the limits of what is considered acceptable in politics. They can also challenge and transform the status quo within months or weeks, compared to the years or decades it often takes for the electoral system to register social change.

Nevertheless, election results can be like a thermometer measuring the political temperature of the country and reflecting the social and political conflicts in society as a whole. If a social movement is reshaping the political landscape, elections can register that, even if in a muted form.

In a November 11 note entitled "Occupy Wall Street Is Winning," the Politico website reported that a Nexus search on the term "income inequality" in the mass media found fewer than 91 instances in the week before the New York occupation started. That number rose to more than 500 in the second week of November.

Two months ago--in the wake of Washington's debt ceiling debacle--who would have thought that the national political conversation would be refocused on the issue of income inequality and corporate political power? Or that a mass movement of ordinary people would have succeeded in shutting down the fifth largest port in the U.S.?

This points to the power of the Occupy movement in transforming the political landscape--which, of course, helped to create the environment for the electoral victories on November 8.

Already liberals and Democrats are trying to capitalize on this. Despite the fact that the Democratic administration's coddling of Wall Street is one of the major motivating factors of the Occupy movement--and that Democratic mayors run most of the cities that have sicced their police forces on Occupy encampments--the Democrats think they can channel Occupy for their own purposes.

Liberal Democratic activist Robert Creamer, the husband of Rep. Jan Schakowsky [D-Ill.), drew out a number of lessons from the election results in a Huffington Post article re-published on the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) website. As a political consultant obsessed with "framing" issues, he pointed out its importance in the Ohio vote:

The 99 percent versus the 1 percent frame is critical to making clear that the problem with our economy has nothing to do with how much teachers, or firefighters, or steel workers, or home care workers, or Social Security recipients make for a living. It has everything to do with growing economic inequality, the exploding financial sector, and an unproductive class of speculators and gamblers who don't make anything of value but siphon off all of our increased productivity.

Creamer manages to mention the 99 percent-1 percent "frame" a number of times, without mentioning the Occupy movement itself.

That's how the Democrats want it. They want to be able to siphon off the Occupy movement's energy without really having to do anything to address the movement's demands. When professional liberals like Creamer or People for the American Way look at November 8, they see electoral "frames" and voter contact strategies to be copied for 2012. They don't see the importance of a social movement beyond its appropriation for electoral purposes.

AS THE 2012 election approaches, more liberal voices will add to a chorus urging Occupiers to join the Democratic camp. In commenting on the GOP's failure to capture the Iowa state senate, E.J. Dionne, the liberal Washington Post columnist, wrote: "Occupy Wall Street, notice that elections matter: A Republican victory over Democrat Liz Mathis would have opened the way for Branstad to push through a cut in corporate income taxes."

The Nation's Washington editor John Nichols rounded up his day-before coverage of the November 8 elections with a call to "Occupy the Polls." Unlike a Beltway-focused pundit like Dionne, who counsels Occupy to ignore mainstream elections at its peril, Nichols and organizations like PDA want to argue positively about why we should "Occupy the Polls."

But wherever the argument is coming from, there's a central point that activists have to remember: The impact of the Occupy movement on November 8 had nothing to do with electoral strategies, poll-driven messaging, Super PAC money, focus-group tested "frames," or any of the rest of the machinery of mainstream electioneering.

Occupy has shaken the political establishment because it audaciously tapped into a deep class anger that has found no outlet in the mainstream political process.

If Occupy maintains its political independence from the capitalist parties, it could endorse tactics like referenda and even independent electoral candidacies to advance parts of its agenda. But as Occupy activists consider advice from liberals to "occupy the polls," they should remember the late Howard Zinn's observation from U.S. history: "[W]here a threatening mass movement developed, the two-party system stood ready to send out one of its columns to surround that movement and drain it of vitality."

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