The spring months are likely to see the expansion of the Occupy movement. Evicted from the little parks where they were encamped, the activists are joining housing occupations and other protests against predatory banks, student protests against rising tuition and debt, and labor strikes and protests against lockouts. This is big news in American politics because we have not seen a protest movement with this much imagination, energy and traction for a long time.
But as the 2012 elections draw nearer, the protests will be shadowed by the unfolding campaigns. After all, most Americans think of elections as the very heart of American politics. Accordingly, there will be lots of exasperated advice to the protesters: at least for now, they should work for the election by joining the ranks of volunteers registering voters, ringing doorbells and staffing the campaign offices. And, of course, they should refrain from attacks on Obama. After all, think of how bad things would be with Romney as president and Tea Party Republicans controlling both houses of Congress. The Supreme Court could become even worse, to say nothing of the danger of another war.
This advice is likely to be ignored. The recruits to Occupy are simply too disillusioned with electoral politics—and who can deny their reasons in the broken promises and timid compromises produced by a system of representation awash in money and lobbyists? Nevertheless, the critics are also right, it could be worse. Hence the apparent dilemma: yes, the election is important, so we should work on the campaign. And yes, the electoral system is corrupt, so joining and supporting the protests is a better way to work for the transformation of the country. In other words, electoral politics and movements proceed on separate tracks, and we have to choose one track or the other.
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This is a false dilemma. Elections and movements do not proceed on separate tracks. To the contrary, electoral politics creates the environment in which movements arise. Think of FDR’s denunciations of the economic royalists and LBJ’s adoption of the refrain “We shall overcome” and, yes, even Obama’s ringing cry “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Rhetoric, of course. But while the rhetoric was intended to appease, that very effort communicated the new political possibility that FDR needed the support of working-class voters, that LBJ needed the support of African-Americans and that Obama needed the support of the young, minority and poor voters who turned out in droves and arguably gave him the election of 2008. So, ironically, rhetoric can help to fuel protest movements.
Moreover, when protest movements do emerge, the price of appeasement can rise dramatically. Protest movements raise the sharp and divisive issues that vague rhetoric is intended to obscure and avoid, and the urgency and militancy of the movement—with its marches, rallies, strikes and sit-ins—breaks the monopoly on political communication otherwise held by politicians and the media. Politicians trying to hold together unwieldy majorities and their big money backers strive to avoid divisive issues except in the haziest rhetorical terms. But movements—with the dramatic spectacles they create and the institutional disruptions they can cause—make that much harder. Movements work against politicians because they galvanize and polarize voters and threaten to cleave the majorities and wealthy backers that politicians work to hold together. But that doesn’t mean that movements are not involved with electoral politics. To the contrary, the great victories that have been won in the past were won precisely because politicians were driven to make choices in the form of policy concessions that would win back some voters, even at the cost of losing others. Thus the Democrats who finally supported civil rights legislation were not stupid. They knew that by conceding to the civil rights movement they were risking the long-term support of the white South. They tried to straddle the divide. But the movement forced their hand.
Thanks to the lunacy that has overtaken the GOP, Obama is in a good position to win re-election. But he is vulnerable to an escalating Occupy movement. In particular, minority, young and poor new voters are volatile voters, and they are susceptible to the appeals of Occupy. I, for one, hope the movement forces Obama to pay for its support, in desperately needed economic, political and environmental reforms.