Archive for November 1st, 2011

Occupy a Voting Booth

Posted November 1, 2011 By Dave Thomer

Yesterday I suggested that without an electoral strategy, the Occupy movement would probably need to focus on economic and social disruption in order to achieve their goals. I’d like to return to that idea of an electoral strategy for a moment. I understand that the Occupy movement taps into sentiments across the political spectrum, and I don’t want to lump them all together as some kind of left wing Tea Party. So I am not surprised that there are no candidates jumping up to run on the Occupy party line the way many conservatives jumped to run on or under the Tea Party banner. But I still think that the shortest line between the present and the desired future of the Occupy movement runs straight through the voting booth.

If “We are the 99%” were the literal truth and not a slogan, there should be no way that anyone could stand in the Occupiers’ path. Yes, there are all sorts of problems with voting access and counting in this country. But if 99% of the eligible voters showed up all over the country with a common agenda, one of three things would happen: 1) they’d win; 2) they’d stage a revolution to overcome whatever obvious rigging prevented them from winning; 3) they’d roll over and prove that no one should care about what happens to them because they don’t. Since one-third to one-half of eligible voters don’t bother to vote for the president, let alone Congress or governors, we’re a long way from that point. Either people are happy with the way things are, or they’re not bothering to change them in the easiest way that we have.

I mean, let’s face it. Occupy can talk about being inspired by Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring, but those movements had one straightforward demand: “Guy who we don’t like, give up power.” We don’t have to stand around in crowds for weeks to make someone do that. We just have to stand in a voting booth (and whatever line is waiting to use it) on one or two days a year. That’s why Occupy doesn’t have a simple message like “Guy we don’t like, go away.” We have a system that would allow the people to send that simple message, and quite often the people don’t bother to use it.

Indeed, the Adbusters post that suggested Occupy Wall Street during the summer said that Occupy’s simple “simple, uncomplicated demand” should be:

we demand that Barack Obama ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.

Because presidential commissions that have no power to change any laws are the clear paths to enduring social change.

Maybe you’re saying, “Dave, we tried the electoral strategy in 2008. Remember Change You Can Believe In? Remember Hope? Remember Change We Need? We tried it. We elected Obama, we elected a Democratic House, we even had a 60-vote Democratic majority in the Senate. Where’s the change?”

It’s a valid complaint, even though I’m one of those people who think President Obama and Congress accomplished a lot of things from 2009-2010 within the constraints of the system. If I were to try to make a reply, I would say that the big problem is that even while voters were electing a president who campaigned on change, they were electing a lot of Representatives and Senators who didn’t. Whether you support Obama or not, it’s quite clear that he was not able to enact whatever part of his platform that he wanted. This is one reason why I rarely pay attention to presidential platforms and proposals. You have to ask what the Congress will pass.

And let’s look at Congress. One of the Democratic leaders in the Senate is Chuck Schumer from New York. That makes sense, since New York is one of the most reliable Democratic states in national elections. And Schumer is able to get a lot of campaign donations not just for himself but for other Democratic candidates, which gives him a fair amount of influence in the caucus. What else is in New York?

Oh yeah. Wall Street. Guess we know where a lot of that campaign money is coming from. So raise your hand if you’re surprised that Schumer might be a little hesitant to really sock it to Wall Street and other financial companies. Yeah, I didn’t think so.

So what’s the alternative? Vote for the Republican? He or she would have lots of corporate support too. Vote for the Greens or some other third party? I tend to think that third party strategies don’t help move policy in the third party’s direction, because of Duverger’s law. But before Schumer can run against a Republican or a Green, he has to run against any other Democrat who thinks he or she can do a better job. He has to run in a primary.

Now, in the world we live in, this is no big problem. Schumer will raise a bajillion dollars, some protest candidate will raise $20.67, Schumer will win handily even if there’s a protest vote and everybody looks ahead to November.

But what if the 99% decided “Not this time”?

What if the public decided that they would reject any candidate who opposed major structural reform of the financial system? Or that they would target the problem of money in politics by rejecting any candidate who raised more than, say, $100,000? (This is a ridiculous number, deliberately so. Major political campaigns cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.) Schumer would be gone, and whoever replaced him would owe nothing to Wall Street. Repeat the process across the nation and suddenly Congress would care a lot less about fundraisers and a lot more about constituent service.

Notice, there’s no new law required here. No major push for campaign finance reform. No need to try to get past a Supreme Court that equates money with speech and corporations with citizens. No feeble bureaucracy powerless to enforce its own edicts. We’d just have to decide that we wanted something different and vote accordingly.

Maybe you don’t want to deploy this strategy against Senators and Representatives right away. Maybe you think it’s too hard to attract good candidates for these jobs without promising them lots of party and financial support. Fine, let’s start small and build a farm team. Want to serve on City Council? Keep your campaign costs under $5,000 or go home. Mayor? We’ll let you spend ten grand. In five or ten years we’ll have some people ready to run for Congress or governorships on a budget.

But how will we find out about the candidates if they can’t inundate us with ads? News media, to the extent that you trust them. Facebook, social media, campaign volunteers and word of mouth, to the extent that you don’t. Is that a lot more work than just pulling campaign flyers out of your mailbox? Sure. But it’s a democracy, We get out what we put in. If we’re not putting in an effort and the 1% are, why be surprised when the government puts outs more effort for them than for us?

Do I think that this is going to happen? Not any time soon. But if you really think that we the people have lost control of the government and our society, then this is what I think we need to do to get it back.