Why there will be no Occupying the elections

November 22, 2011

Ironic, it seems to me, that shortly after the Occupy movement had some of its biggest successes -- 30,000 people on the Brooklyn Bridge, Bank Transfer Day, the president of the University of California condemning the behavior of his own police force -- mainstream media figures usually considered progressive are suddenly calling for the movement to change tactics.

Among others, The New York Times’ David Carr last week suggested that the movement may have hit its media exposure ceiling and will need to change strategies. Perhaps more disappointingly, my good friend Laura Washington missed the boat entirely in a recent Sun-Times column by implying that Occupiers might now want to join the mainstream. Among her suggestions: Look at the Tea Party. Anoint leaders, run for office. Her conclusion? “If the Democrats are smart, they will co-opt you.”

Oh, Laura.

The comparison of these two movements has always baffled me. Other than that they are both expressions of grassroots dissatisfaction, there’s not much in common.

The Tea Party is about trying to bring back an imagined American past of glory, prosperity and global superiority. That’s why the Tea Party dovetails so neatly into elections, particularly local ones. It’s not against the system. Its gripe is that the system has been co-oped by the less patriotic, the less American. It’s trying to rescue the system.

The Occupy movement, on the other hand, is about taking down what they consider an unjust the system and re-inventing it as a more fair and equitable process. It’s not American per se but international -- that’s why there are Occupy movements in Cairo and Buenos Aires, in Brisbane and Cape Town and all over the world.

The Occupy movement is about a possible future. That’s why the occupations aren’t just about sign waving but about creating alternate spaces. It’s why the occupations have libraries and food kitchens, teach-ins and medical tents. It’s why the Occupy movement condemns both Republicans and Democrats and refuses to engage them.

Certainly, and especially as the 2012 elections near, some Occupiers will, individually, align themselves with particular campaigns, with specific candidates, even with the mainstream political parties that they are now fighting against. Certainly progressive candidates will need and want the Occupiers’ energy. Any politician -- of any party -- who ignores the impact of the Occupy movement does so at her or is own peril.

Electoral participation from Occupiers will happen on an individual basis: folks who’ve been touched and inspired by Occupy’s core values making personal decisions to join the mainstream to help change it.

But please understand that it won’t be the Occupy movement itself. And anyone who keeps waiting for the Occupiers as a whole to sign up for electoral politics -- much less to be willingly co-opted by the hapless Democrats -- really doesn’t get it.

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