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Occupy the Electoral Process

It would be a mistake for members of the Occupy movement to ignore the 2012 elections.

Liz Novak

An activist with the "Occupy Iowa caucuses" holds a sign during a march along a street in Des Moines, Iowa, on December 31, 2011. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

What is happening in America?

The efforts of individual people still matter in elections. I know that firsthand.

When did my formerly apolitical friends and family in Wisconsin start caring about politics? Since the campaign to recall Gov. Scott Walker began on November 15, I have been blasted with news about how the collection of signatures is going. In Wisconsin, the enthusiasm gap” is gone – for now.

And in the rest of the country, the Occupy movement is demanding deep reforms of our political and economic system. The grassroots spirit of the Occupy movement brings to mind my work this past summer managing the campaign to defend Wisconsin state Sen. Jim Holperin, one of three Democratic senators targeted for recall. 

I began working in the Wisconsin Legislature in 2006, while still a student at the University of Wisconsin. So I am naturally interested in why some Occupy activists have developed a reflexive objection to engaging in electoral politics.

The Occupy movement has a window of opportunity during the 2012 elections to shape our country’s policy debates. Will the movement abandon its anti-politician stance and work to push big issues (ending corporate personhoood and reducing inequality) into the electoral process – and from there head into the legislative arena?

Campaign professionals like to believe that messaging wins all. But messaging will not be enough to convince Occupiers to go door-to-door spouting what – [insert candidate name here] – has done or will do for the 99%.

Instead, candidates need to engage in meaningful dialogue with the Occupy movement by having face-to-face discussions with its members. They need to figure out how to translate the issues that Occupiers are passionate about into legislative priorities.

The Occupy general assemblies may ultimately refrain from endorsing an electoral strategy, but it would be a mistake for members of the Occupy movement to ignore the 2012 elections.

Consider the recent victories in Wisconsin, Ohio and Mississippi, where on-the-ground-organizations beat powerful anti-choice and anti-labor interests.

The efforts of individual people still matter in elections. I know that firsthand. The Holperin-Senate campaign won a Republican-leaning district with more than 55 percent of the vote by out-organizing and out-volunteering the Tea Party. As Tony Benn says on page 28, All campaigns for change always begin at the bottom and inch toward the top.”

President Barack Obama does not offer a plan for the comprehensive social and economic transformation envisioned by the Occupy movement. But as his poll numbers falter, Democratic strategists will turn to the base to build a get-out-the-vote operation for November. This gives progressives an opportunity to leverage their demands and place economic inequality at the center of the political debate. Electoral politics cannot be the only front of our efforts, but to abandon that front in 2012 would be to cede power to Tea Party reactionaries.

As has been proven in Wisconsin – and will likely be proven again as the campaign to recall Gov. Scott Walker gains steam – grassroots activism is a significant force for change in America. Occupy activists agree, or they wouldn’t be encamped in parks around the country. But protesting the status quo completely outside of the electoral system will only take you so far – just ask the Tea Party, which has partied its way into Congress.

Liz Novak is In These Times’ Development Director.
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