On OWS and politics

by J.A. Myerson

I just sent an e-mail to a relative, whom I was discussingOccupy Wall Streetwith at a family thing yesterday. She is pretty progressive (not as left as I am by any stretch) and very smart and was concerned about Occupy Wall Street’s lack of a strategy for engaging in electoral or legislative politics. I wasn’t going to make it public, but Nancy Giles expressed a similar concern on Up with Chris Hayes this morning, so I feel like it’s worth making this case “out loud,” as it were. Here’s the e-mail:

*  *  *

I was just thinking about our discussion yesterday about the necessity of fielding good candidates to run for office and change laws and how that squares with OWS’s lack of interest in pursuing the electoral realm of politics and stick to public demonstration and direct action.

As always, I look to the civil rights movement for analogies. Of course, what was necessary to get Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts passed were good politicians in office. But they also needed considerable pressure from the grassroots, and in ways other than just holding rallies for the pieces of legislation. (Remember: at the March on Washington, John Lewis of SNCC, who’d been beat to within an inch of his life in the struggle, now a Democratic congressman from Georgia, called the CRA “too little, too late” and castigated the Democrats for their reticence in coming to the aid of black empowerment.)

In 1955, during the bus boycott (a better analogy for 2011 when we’re talking about the scope of a social movement), since things are just *starting* now, as they were then), the nation suffered very grievously from a lack of black-friendly representation in the halls of power. But the way the movement achieved the sorts of legislatures that were in place for their later victories wasn’t by consistently running and fielding candidates and by writing and lobbying for pieces of legislation. It was by exerting people power (a much more self-reliant form of American political engagement, if we are allowed to consider self-reliance an “American value”) — that is, bodies in the streets, creating a constant pressure on the national spirit and priorities that couldn’t be ignored.

When the national priorities are shifted to matters of class- or race-level abuse, exploitation, dominance, inequality, injustice and un-freedom, there is a placement of incentives on certain types of candidates to run, it changes the calculus for which traits are generally considered desirable and which prohibitive in a political campaign, it gives cover to cowardly lefties to show some gumption, it intimidates middle-of-the-roaders into starting to get more hard-line, and it inspires pieces of legislation designed to respond to the demand in the streets (not because it’s in the streets, but because it has changed the national spirit of the moment).

Granted, Dr. King got in with politicians where he could and there came to be a lot of deal-making with the powerful, but that wasn’t for a good long time, and that sort of thing was only made possible by the crisis created in the streets. No one like the 1965 version of President Johnson was in power in 1955 to negotiate with. Nor did any of the other requisite political circumstances exist. The way those were created was by protest, as opposed to electoral or legislative, politics

That is how OWS contributes to the political landscape. Over long-term (bus boycott to King assassination was 13 years) agitation, Occupy Wall Street continues to push the issues of political corruption and repression, economic injustice and corporate crime, &c. and the electorate and the parties are altered. It is the activist equivalent, oddly, of 9/11 which, though it had no political operation to lobby and campaign, managed to shape the national priorities for the better part of a decade and so shape the focus of much of the political activity at the top.

Does that make sense? I’m just working these thoughts out for myself.