Thursday, March 1
Now, Let's Occupy the Ballot
The protests of 2011—from Wisconsin to Wall Street—finally tore off the gag of silence about corruption and economic inequality in our country.
But the pundits at FOX “News” are not wrong when they say that our movement is nowhere near as powerful as the Tea Party movement—at least not yet. That is in part because the Tea Partiers used the momentum from their protests to seize a piece of institutional power through elections.
Today there are Tea Party caucuses in Congress. There are Tea Party-sponsored presidential debates. The actual “tea parties” are no longer well-attended. But the movement is still in a position to continue implementing its draconian agenda.
Candidate Barack Obama also successfully converted rising frustration and activist energy into an electoral triumph in 2008. But thus far, Occupy Wall Street has not tried to occupy the institutions of established, formal political power (e.g., elections and political parties).
This omission is not by accident. Rather than getting caught up in electioneering, Occupy is choosing to focus on the hard, risky, and often-thankless work of direct action protest. They are building their own community, presence, and power through participatory democracy. They fear that too much entanglement with the existing system would kill their independence, idealism, and chutzpah.
Theirs is a sensible stance, as far as it goes. Larger movements often need a bright spearhead, propelled by pure ideals that are untarnished by the exigencies of ordinary politics. But the question remains: What about the rest of us? There are tens of millions of people who never slept outside in a tent—but who still want a better economy. During election season, all eyes turn to politics. How do we ensure that the interests and ideas of the 99 percent are represented in the campaigns and in the established halls of power?
Protest alone won’t move the needle. D.C. is still “pre-Occupied.” The occupation of Wall Street may be over. What never ended was the occupation by Wall Street of our nation’s capitol: Their hordes of lobbyists have taken over the place.
Unless we simultaneously work to fix the political process, even our best neighborhood efforts, protests, and entrepreneurial innovations won’t work.
If we take elections seriously, we can:
1. Support candidates for local office from this movement. Progressive Majority, New Organizing Institute, Rebuild The Dream, Campaign for America’s Future, and the Working Families Party are working overtime on this front.
2. Back local ballot measures to tax wealth and create work—or to otherwise advance the interests of the 99 percent. Groups like the Campaign for Community Change are exploring this territory.
3. Challenge all candidates to publicly oppose the Citizens United decision, which lets corporations buy our electoral process.
While reaching for our hopes in 2008, we hit our heads on a ceiling. Now the backlashers want to tear the floor out from under us as well. We can’t let them. We cannot get everything we want in the voting booth. But—if we don’t vote smart—we can lose everything we have there. Let’s continue to protest peacefully—and occupy some ballot boxes, along the way.
Van Jones wrote this article for 9 Strategies to End Corporate Rule, the Spring 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. Van is a long-time activist, former White House adviser, and co-founder of Rebuild the Dream.