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Occupy: Successes and Challenges

[ 61 ] December 18, 2011 |

Robert Cruickshank has a really smart essay on the relationship between the Occupy movement and established progressive groups. This bit I think is the crux:

Occupiers are openly advocating revolutionary change from the streets. But here is where I think the progressive movement’s love affair with OWS should find its limits. Occupy alone won’t produce the changes we need in this country. By focusing on physical occupation of public space, they’ve muddled their early message and have alienated potential allies. On the other hand, they have succeeded in kicking a door open. The public wants action on inequality and wants to go after the 1%. Progressives should walk through the door that Occupy opened – and they should be willing to work with anyone, Occupiers or not, who are interested in providing the leadership that is needed to make lasting change happen.

The goal of progressives should be to build a broader, long-term, mass movement to achieve a democratic economy, an equal society, and a peaceful planet. Taking to the streets is a tactic to help get us toward that goal. But it is those who are best organized who will prevail even if street action leads to major political change.

That is the key lesson of history. In February 1917 a mass movement took to the streets of the Russian Empire and overthrew the tsar. But because they were the best organized, it was the Bolsheviks who ultimately prevailed, even though most Russians seemed to prefer a more moderate and democratic outcome. In February 1979 a mass movement that had been in the streets of Iran for nearly a year finally toppled the shah. Many of the leaders of that movement wanted Iran to become a western-style liberal democracy. What they got was the Islamic Republic, because the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers were by far the best organized group in the country.

In February 2011 a mass movement took to the streets of Egypt and overthrew Hosni Mubarak. But because they were the best organized, it was the Muslim Brotherhood that won the fall elections and is now poised to govern Egypt. The people of Tahrir Square are struggling to maintain their vision of the revolution and are finding that taking to the streets is a tactic that can work at times, but isn’t enough to produce long-term change. If it were, the occupations of Syntagma Square would have stopped Greece from imploding on austerity, and would have brought down the neo-Thatcherism of the Cameron-Clegg government in the UK.

Progressives were not wrong to care about winning elections and making sure the right people were in government. That matters a great deal. Who controls the levers of government, whose ideas prevail in a campaign, which ballot initiatives win and lose, which budgets get cut and which budgets get increased – all of these things are crucially important. And ultimately, if we are going to take our money back from the 1%, it’s going to require governmental action.

What progressives were wrong to do was to make electoral organizing such a central focus of their work, almost to the exclusion of everything else. The movement needs to broaden. The problem with focusing so much on Occupy is that it too is narrow. It’s the overture to the greater opera of change that is beginning. It won’t produce change on its own either.

Forgive the length of the blockquote, but there’s several important points in here. First, the focus on public space was really important in bringing people from behind their computers and into the person-to-person focus necessary to build a long-term movement. This important ingredient in fostering grassroots movement is underrated. That said, by November, the movement’s focus turned to the long-term physical occupation of public spaces rather than economic issues. There was probably no way around this, but the occupation of spaces is a means, not an end.

Second, I completely agree that progressives have focused too much on electoral change. As Cruickshank says, electing more and better Democrats is a necessary part of change, but for a long time Democrats have seen the electoral process as almost the exclusive area where change should be made, missing the bigger picture of fostering grassroots movements. Nowhere have we seen this more starkly than the labor movement. The AFL-CIO has funded Democrats for generations and has prioritized political advocacy over organizing as the primary protector of its interests. This strategy has completely failed. Without grassroots pressure, politicians can safely take progressives’ money and ignore them after they are elected. Remember how Jon Tester was the great hope of Kos in 2006. How did that turn out for progressives? Not so great as Tester has moved consistently to the center and the right over the past 5 years.

As Cruickshank notes, organized and established groups are the best placed to take advantage of discontent in the streets. Occupy should be a major wake-up call for progressive movements and is a huge opportunity. We’ve already seen Occupy focus national attention on income inequality and poverty. From Obama and the mainstream media on down, we’ve seen a new focus on these issues. That’s great, but progressive groups need to nourish movements in the streets, not try to co-opt them for the next electoral campaign.

Comments (61)

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  1. DocAmazing says:

    Occupy should be a major wake-up call for progressive movements and is a huge opportunity

    As long as the national Dems keep fellating the donors and the unions keep prioritizing keeping management happy over consolidating gains for workers, Occupy is gonna be mighty lonely.

  2. jeer9 says:

    To state the obvious, I believe most organized and established groups that are progressive in nature are already aligned with the Dems, which means harnessing OWS’ movement and discontent eventually leads toward electoral machinations the pointlessness of which seems to be why the spaces were occupied in the first place. Change can only occur from outside the duopoly, the creation of a third alternative which slowly drains support from the Dems and undermines their legitimacy. The real fear is that while this process is underway the crazies will gain more control. That seems to me an unavoidable risk and the only option outside of the standard mantras (“More and better Dems”; “We have always been a center-right country”; “Institutional structures are tilted against liberal reform”; “I prefer my immiseration in slow, gentle doses.”) OWS, for all its anarchic, ineffable anger, realizes this choice and refuses to be co-opted. Its efforts will be focused upon a separate identity and not funneled into the damp dark hole of intra-party politics, to be gradually extinguished in such a way that the firebrand never notices the crust of cynicism moldering his soul, not even as he tells old friends: “The senate filibuster is really a sad but necessary instrument.”

    Cue the “Heighten The Contradictions” chorus.

    • Lee says:

      Wasn’t there a post on this blog on what a progressive alternative to the Democratic Party would look like? I think Erik might have written it. Didn’t Erik conclude that a progressive alternative to the Democratic Party would face many of the same problems that the progressive part of the Democratic Party faces, i.e. the need to work with non-progressives in order to get anything done or to run less progressive members in less progressive districts to get enough seats.

      Pure liberal/progressive/leftist parties work best in parliamentary systems with proportional representation. That way they are always working on their full statistical strength rather than on less than full statistic strength because of gerrymandering or what not. Also, if they manage to seize control of the legislature than they can implement their policy desires more easily. A pure leftist party in our system is going to be even more impotent than the Democratic Party.

      • jeer9 says:

        It’s hard to imagine a more impotent party than the Dems. I take it you believe in the “more and better Dems” line or “blue Dogs” are better than Republicans.

    • mpowell says:

      I’m not sure if this leap is intentional or not, but when you start with organized and established progressive groups back the democratic party and the democratic party is a corrupt center-right party and conclude from that these progressive groups are therefore corrupt as well, you are making an unsustainable leap in logic. The call here is for more grass roots organizing from these progressive groups, not all of which have been corrupted, imop.

      I fear the path you advocate is a quick one to a Republican headed fascist state. Then you really will only have extra-political reform options. And violent revolution tends to go poorly as well. Is there a single example of a left-liberal democracy that was formed through revolution instead of a gradual process? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so.

      • jeer9 says:

        I did not assert that progressive groups which support the Dems are corrupt but that fostering various grassroots movements inevitably leads to wanting those views represented at the ballot box which means voting for Dems whose party bosses have no interest in seeing those issues addressed which means we’re back to square one and the OWS. I respect the activism but see their faith in the Dems as misplaced.

    • Change can only occur from outside the duopoly, the creation of a third alternative which slowly drains support from the Dems and undermines their legitimacy.

      You can tell, because absolutely none of the progressive change that happened in this country in the past century worked this way; while every effort to create a “third alternative” to the left of the center-left party ever accomplished failed spectacularly to accomplish anything.

      Cue the “Heighten The Contradictions” chorus.

      Yes, your argument does have a glaring, oft-mentioned hole in the middle of it.

    • As Joe From Lowell notes, “Change can only occur from outside the duopoly, the creation of a third alternative which slowly drains support from the Dems and undermines their legitimacy” is not how third parties ever work. Even if we go beyond the 20th century, 3rd parties don’t slowly drain or undermine parties – the Whigs, Republicans, and Populists all were created and became nationally powerful within a very short time (eight years for the Whigs, six years for the Republicans, and five years for the Populists), all were created either from a split within a major party or when a major party had collapsed, and all were formed around a single overriding issue.

      So the question becomes – without a foothold within a party to begin with, without a single defining issue (as opposed to a cluster of issues), how is this third party to form?

  3. Karl Radek says:

    <emIn the aftermath of the July uprising, Lenin was accused of being a German agent and forced into hiding, many leading Bolsheviks were jailed, and the dramatic upsurge in popular support for the Bolshevik program came to a halt. At the time that Prelude to Revolution was published and I started research for my book on the October Revolution itself (The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd, 1976), it seemed to me that since the character of the Bolshevik Party in the spring and early summer of 1917 had contributed so significantly to the July debacle, especially its tolerance of fundamental programmatic divisions and its decentralized structure and responsiveness to the popular mood, subsequent restructuring more in keeping with the traditionally accepted “Leninist model” might explain its rapid recovery and ability to take power. This supposition proved incorrect. To the contrary, it turned out that the party’s continued acceptance of diverse opinion coupled with its relatively open and democratic operational style; the continuing sensitivity of its decision-making to mass attitudes; and the enduring popularity of its political program calling for immediate peace, land, and bread, and transfer of power to multi-party soviets pending convocation of the Constituent Assembly proved to be critical to its success in October. Let me illustrate this key point with a couple of examples that are developed and documented in The Bolsheviks Come to Power.
    http://wsws.org/articles/2010/dec2010/rabi-d02.shtml

    • dave says:

      So, sneakily pretending to be pluralist and democratic, until you seize power, is the way forward? Got it.

      • Ian says:

        The Bolsheviks were not democratic, but the Russian Provisional Government(March-September 1917) was genuinely liberal-democratic.

        Unfortunately the Kerensky government declared its intention to fight the war to ‘its glorious conclusion,’ which was incredibly unpopular. Bolshevik ‘peace at any price’ looked comparatively good.

      • Karl Radek says:

        You do realize history doesn’t happen in a vacuum?

        As a result, the Entente decided to invade the newly borne Russia. The Soviet government relentlessly tried to come to peace with all invading armies, both the imperialists and the white armies. In less than 4 months, from November 1918 to February 1919, the Soviet government sent seven proposals for peace on all fronts to all Entente nations and military commanders. On January 5 the British government responded and suggested that representatives of all sides be sent to a Paris peace conference; this happening at the extreme agitation of Winston Churchill, who exclaimed that the Soviet government had to be crushed as swiftly as possible. The French government also strongly disagreed, and refused to allow the Soviet government on French soil. The combined pressure of U.S. President Wilson and Lloyd George on early February, 1919 persuaded the French to agree and setup for armistice talks on the island of Prinkipo in the Sea of Marmara (a sea in northwestern Turkey, between the Aegean Sea and Black Sea).

        The Western nations divided Russia into theaters which each nation targeted for attack. Japan and the United States led the Far Eastern assault, claiming Siberia as their territory of war. Bessarabia, and all of the Ukraine were the French territory of war, while Britain would suppress and capture the Soviet republics in the Transcaucas (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan) and work its way up the southern peninsula of Russia. In the north, the British fleet, with assistance from the French and American fleets, would take control of the Karellian peninsula and the region of Arkhangel’sk; thusly surrounding the Soviet government on all sides.
        http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1918/military/ch03.htm

  4. DrDick says:

    I agree about the need to mobilize people around issues rather than parties (or even other forms of organization). If you want to move the politicians, you have to first move the people. You have to demonstrate to them that it is in their electoral interest to listen and take heed. Tha is especially true given the power and influence of money in our politics.

    • dave says:

      Maybe work on having an electoral system in which more than half the eligible population participates? Maybe eventually aspire to having one in which at least 75% can be persuaded to give a damn once every couple of years?

      What could or would do that?

  5. wileywitch says:

    In order to have a successful and sufficiently large grassroots movement to challenge the electoral landscape it will be necessary to talk to people who aren’t like us. To talk to people who don’t talk like us. To talk to people who aren’t educated like us. To talk to people who don’t read a lot. To talk to people who are poor. To talk to people who are ignorant (but not stupid). To talk to people who don’t usually vote or think much about politics.

    And it’s important not to allow sociopaths to become leaders—they will screw everyone and leave them wondering what they did wrong. Or near-sociopathic grifters— people will catch onto them sooner than they’ll catch on to sociopaths, but still they will have wasted time and money and may be associated with theft and snake oil. Or attention whores— people will probably get bored with them before too long, but will have been made to look silly by association. Or idiots (usually being followed by much of the same). Or purity trolls, who, no matter how cooly they present themselves, are fanatics and will leave people burnt out and dejected after working very hard to accomplish nothing.

    Perhaps the most expedient thing would be a coalition of a whole lot of small groups that have been successfully working for a long time to relieve and resolve problems of the poor and disenchanted. And those groups that have long been working successfully on sustainable and fair ways of living and organizing.

    • So an overhauled system should be positioned toward attracting mentally healthy and balanced people to run for office and should repel sociopaths and other unbalanced people.

      Copying from small groups won’t resolve everything because part of what mentally healthy people want to avoid is the cult of celebrity that happens to any leader of a large group.

      • wileywitch says:

        NOTHING SOLVES EVERYTHING. This is a very fundamental truth. Anyone who goes into anything expecting to solve everything is being childish and is likely to disappoint his/herself out of making any long term commitment to anything that might be of useful and if not discouraged soon enough will likely discourage others as well.

        New movements need realism in order to gain the traction that it takes to achieve momentum.

        The people in groups that have been effective have, in all likelihood, moved beyond the teen-aged rock star stage and are in the habit of staying committed to principles and goals.

  6. bob mcmanus says:

    So we should take a break from electoral politics, hit the neighborhoods and halls, organize organize organize…in order to elect more and better Democrats?

    I mean, what exactly is this “grassroots pressure” against Jon Tester gonna look like in your politics if not funding and supporting a new new new more progressive opponent to Jon Tester?
    And the point is, that this has failed, and the system is so broken it will always fail. If the pressure looks like direct action, we are back to OWS or something like it.

    I look forward to next summer, or perhaps summer 2013 if the 99% get distracted next year, and then get disappointed once again.

    • bob mcmanus says:

      The existing Democrats in office will do just fine, if there is enough street pressure and direct action to “persuade” them to enact a revolutionary agenda.

      But the street and direct action is the means to that end, not a means to a means (electoral politics)

      • I agree with every word here (although “revolutionary” is, if not being used metaphorically, a bit overwrought.)

        But allow me to add a few: public activism that shifts politics to the left doesn’t just compel unwilling Democrats to push a progressive agenda. It also liberates Democrats who want to push a progressive agenda to do so.

        It acts like a pulling guard, opening up holes for the ball carrier.

    • DrDick says:

      As a Montanan, let me assure you that there is exactly no Democratic politician significantly to the left of Tester in the state. Tester is under tremendous electoral pressure from an activist right in the state and there needs to be comparable pressure from the left (which does not really exist right now) to counterbalance it.

      To a large extent that is true most places. Democratic office holders know there is a price to be paid if they stray too far to the left, but do not perceive a similar cost for moving to the right since the Republicans are so extreme.

      There is also the pervasive and and distorting influence of money on our electoral process and the money interests tend to be more conservative than the electorate. If candidates move too far left, they face a loss of funding. We absolutely have to get private money out of elections if we are to reclaim our democracy.

      • Holden Pattern says:

        We absolutely have to get private money out of elections if we are to reclaim our democracy.

        Then we should just wave it bon voyage for a few more decades at least.

      • DocAmazing says:

        In places where it isn’t true, like California, we still get trimming and caving in and rightward drift by many of our Dem politicians (who doesn’t love Dianne Feinstein?), once again, probably due to the need to keep the corporate donor base happy. (Although in Feinstein’s case, if it involves police powers, she’s happy to go there on her own.)

        • DrDick says:

          As I say, that also reflects the lack of an effective and vocal activist left. To the extent that the there is an activist left, and I think California probably qualifies, it is divided and narrowly focused on specific issues (environment, civil rights, labor issues, etc).

          • And to the extent there is an activist right in California, a significant part comes from out of state (cf Prop 8); California is a thorn in the side of the right (look how many SCOTUS cases started in California), and they are willing to deploy resources INTO the state to out-resource the citizens.

        • DrDick says:

          I have to agree with that assessment.

  7. Bijan Parsia says:

    The question (or family of questions) I’d really like to see answered is less Occupy specific but more about WTF is up with the various populist and pseudo-populist movements over the past 15 years, from Seattle through Move-On, the Tea Party, and now Occupy.

    One obvious point is that the far less grass roots movement (the Tea Party) had the standard propaganda mills working for it, rather than against it. Did that actually help them? Did they receive more of what they wanted, in so far as they coherently wanted stuff? That is, how effective an agent of change was the Tea Party? To the degree it was effective, wasn’t it primarily through primary challenges?

    So, what does that mean for real mass movements who have a essentially hostile media (and state!) organized against it?

    I feel that there’s a basic institutional failure at work on the part of the Democrats, but it’s hard for me to be sure (look at Obama’s fundraising!) or to know exactly what it is. Does it all really boil down to getting reasonable control of the media?

    • DocAmazing says:

      Does it all really boil down to getting reasonable control of the media?

      A very big piece of it does, yes. For many years, and most especially since the Reagan kids tore down the Fairness Doctrine, the story that the majority of the population has been getting is entirely one-sided and frequently patently false. This is especially true when one considers the media coverage of events like Seattle 1999, anti-Iraq war organizing, and Occupy. Heck, we even have commentors here who seem to think that the LAPD acted with restraint and professionalism in busting up Occupy LA–clearly the propaganda machine is running virtually unopposed.

      The problem is that the corporate donor base likes this state of affairs–Obama’s head of FCC announced that the Fairness Doctrine is essentially a dead letter and no efforts are going to be made to bring it back. The intertoobs are swell and all, but when J. Sixpack of Muncie is still getting his information from the corporate press, don’t expect a large shift in consciousness.

      • DrDick says:

        Agreed. One more perverse consequence of media consolidation.

      • Holden Pattern says:

        The current state of affairs is not an accident, either. The willingness of conservatives, both hardcore ideologues and simply mercenary corporatists, to spend AND LOSE money in creating a message machine is unmatched by anything on even the nominal left.

        You have a few different reasons for that, but the big ones are: (a) there isn’t as much money on the left, and (b) the people who actually have money on the nominal left don’t want to change the game, they just want to have a marginal say in the outcome. Also, too, don’t-rock-the-boat careerism in the various issue organizations means politics at the margins and panicked defense are the orders not only of the day, but of the century — it’s personally profitable and doesn’t upset the donor classes.

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        But doesn’t this render both the “riot for justice and the end of the duopoly now” and the “elect more and slightly-less-corporate-sellouty dems that we then pressure from the street” lines dead letters? Without a reasonable media isn’t it all doomed?

        Or, rather, isn’t it all doomed to partial and happenstance victories which might be somewhat useful in support of tactical moves within established institutions?

    • On the other hand, the Tea Party was the only populist movement that went hard into party politics. And actually succeeded in transforming large parts of a political party from the inside.

  8. actor212 says:

    On the other hand, Shorter Cruickshank: Those Occupy folks ought to get out of the way!

    I say that because Cruickshank expects perfection from the first crocus to peek thru the winter snow. Let Occupy be Occupy. They seem to be learning from their mistakes as they go.

    OK, maybe that’s a harsh assessment of the piece, but his tone comes off distinctly elitist for reasons I’m about to outline.

    I agree the left is voluminous enough to support two groups and they don’t necessarily have to be in sync: an activist group that goes beyond MoveOn to legitimize street protest and a political arm that can actually try to drag the rest of the nation into the direction of the ideas espoused by the activist arm.

    Ideas. That’s the key: right now, the “left” in this country (as defined by the moderately left-centrist Democratic party, with exceptions in both directions. I’ll get back to that in a moment) acts as a damper on bad centrist and right-wing ideas: privatizing Social Security, eliminating the minimum wage, and so on.

    What the left needs is a shot in the arm of vitamin Good Ideas, ideas that show there are alternatives to “this tax cut versus that tax cut.” Like providing services. Like enriching the lives of everyone. Like lifting all boats in the harbor by raising everyone’s water levels, not just the yachts.

    The activist arm can do that, but unfortunately, it has been mocked and derided and minimized.

    Until OWS pointed out the inherent inequity now found in the system. We’ve reached a breaking point in this nation. The only way we can drag the country kicking and screaming into the 21st Century is to drag the damned left kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.

    So here’s what I’d like to see: Let Occupy by Occupy. Let them take radical stances and openly defy the mainstream media noise machine AND the political establishment. It’s what drove the anti-war movement. It’s what drove the civil rights movement.

    The left fed off those ideas (and if you recall with the civil rights movement, the left was distinctly Republican) and incorporated them into legislation because it was the will of the people. The movements got big enough, and eventually enough Americans agreed with the aims of those movements.

    The Blue Dogs were overrated in my book, yet I supported Tester and still do because while he’s not the most reliable Democratic vote in the Senate, he’s a damn sight more reliable than Conrad Burns would have been. It’s these small steps in the right direction that give me hope that eventually we can move the country left.

  9. bob mcmanus says:

    “What the left needs is a shot in the arm of vitamin Good Ideas”

    How about “tax the income and wealth of the rich and build roads, schools, and hospitals?”

    The ideas are easy. The politics has been understood for more than a century.

    What we need is liberals admitting that the system is irremediably broken and moving to the streets is the only solution.

    You simply cannot pretend to any sympathy for OWS without taking that position.

    • I’d like to know how you define “irremediably broken” and what actions that compels as opposed to fixing a severely damaged (but still fixable) system. For example, I see street protest as part of the system, not a sign that we have moved beyond it.

  10. bobbyp says:

    AFL-CIO has funded Democrats for generations and has prioritized political advocacy over organizing

    Well, that’s not entirely fair. Post war labor legislation (you’ve heard of Taft-Hartley no doubt)and supine Democrats connived to create an atmosphere in which organizing was deemed a loser on a cost/benefit basis.

    Note on October Revolution: I seem to recall there was this little thing about Kerensky continuing to pursue an insanely ill considered and destructive war…….

    • Ian says:

      Absolutely, the Kerensky government’s insistence that nothing but victory could end the war was a major cause of its downfall. Aside from that, the very fact that they came to power in a revolution

      On OWS, here’s Vaclav Havel on post-democratic politics (a long excerpt from “The Power of the Powerless”). I wonder whether it’s something OWS organizers had in mind when they were bringing things into being. If not, it’s eerily prescient.

  11. It’s entirely possible to broaden a political movement without broadening the political nation.

  12. MOFN says:

    This is interesting. Folks talk about progressive primary challenges to Democrats in conservative areas. I agree with the sentiment, but not the action. For the most part, it is just a waste of time and money. Why not work on getting better Democrats/liberals/progressives into office in liberal areas. Take former Congresswoman Jane Harman. She was a Blue Dog, but she was elected in a highly Democratic district. Her ability to self-fund would have been an issue (for a primary), but there are many seats (local, state, and federal) held by folks who are questionably liberal.

    I think a good electoral strategy is key, but one needs a strong grassroots/organizing strategy as well (both to keep pressure on the politicians AND to engage and train new activists). Great article, interesting points.

    • mpowell says:

      I think this is an important point. We have a lot of inexcusably terrible Democrats coming from liberal districts. I would bet the money has a lot to do with it. You can get big donors being your average center-right Democrat. But it’s not really possible as a real liberal. Those guys probably have trouble even getting local party endorsements because their views are so radioactive to the 1%.

    • To put a slightly different edge on “grassroots” versus “electoral politics”:

      I think we’re ignoring a whole different area of politics here, namely party politics. It’s not enough to say “we need to primary X, Y, and Z” from the outside – the point is you need to organize the mechanisms by which people get to the point of being nominated by taking day-to-day power within the party.

      • jeer9 says:

        Reform from within. That will work in the post-1980 Democratic party. Still, I can’t figure out why the party keeps moving rightward.

        • LeeEsq says:

          Oh, I know the answer to this one. The number of liberals and progressives who are willing to do the long, grueling but necessary grunt work to reform the Democratic Party within are much smaller than the number of rightists who were willing to do the same for the Republicans. To reform a party within takes a long time and the work isn’t nearly as sexy as mass protests in the romantic iconography of liberals and progressives.

          • jeer9 says:

            Yes, it’s all about sexiness and romantic iconic mass protests and the fact that liberals and progressives don’t care enough about the issues to put in the painstaking effort. Nothing about the parties monopolizing power and dispensing special privilege in order to rake in money from Big Business and consolidate their political control. I can’t figure out why the poor aren’t contributing to groups seeking social and economic justice. Maybe a bit more T & A would get their attention.

        • What LeeEsq said.

          Actually, your comment about the post-1980 Democratic Party is quite appropriate, because the right wing of the Democratic Party (the New Democrats, Democratic Leadership Council, and other business-friendly types) did actually pursue a reform from within strategy, first seeking to isolate and delegitimize the Rainbow Coalition/Ted Kennedy wing of the party, then to reframe party orthodoxy on taxation and budgets, and finally to gain control of the nomination process, which it did rather successfully from 1992-2004.

          What’s curious to me is that, given the proven success of “reform from within” movements in the last fifty years, from the Goldwater/Reagan revolution to the Tea Party, why the Left insists that such strategies never work and (post-McGovern) refuses to try it.

          • jeer9 says:

            How about the fact that the issues which concern the Left don’t increase profits for corporations and thus receive much less funding. Add to this, the fact that the Dems have figured out that no matter how often they slap their base their support never wavers and their positions are never threatened. Why would they ever move Left? What’s curious to me is how you get dressed in the morning.

  13. John says:

    Remember how Jon Tester was the great hope of Kos in 2006. How did that turn out for progressives?

    A damn sight better than if Conrad Burns was still the junior senator from Montana. I don’t really understand the complaint here. Do conservative Democrats often suck? Of course. But the mistake isn’t supporting people like Tester. It’s expecting them to be more than they are. Tester is a moderate Democrat who got elected to the Senate in a conservative state. He is the best we’re going to do with that Senate seat, and that’s a very good thing. And, really, what’s so wrong with Tester? I don’t remember him being a particular obstacle to any of Obama’s proposals in the 111th Congress. Certainly Burns would have filibustered all of them.

    There are plenty of problems with our country that aren’t going to be solved or aided by voting in moderate Democrats in conservative districts. But there are plenty of problems that having Tester instead of Burns really does help with.

    • I think the point is that electing Tester was, while necessary, not sufficient to accomplish that which his online supporters hoped would be accomplished.

    • And there is a fundamental expectation problem because the electorate is looking for a magic bullet (eg Tester or Obama) and someone to whom they can hand off responsibility instead of understanding that we the people retain responsibility–like it or not.

    • DrDick says:

      Tester is actually better than Bauchus (my other Senator) and much better than Ben Nelson. He is far from my dream candidate, but he really is about as good as you are going to get here in Montana. While we elect actual liberals to the legislature from here in Missoula, Helena, and Great Falls, none of them is going to have much chance in a statewide election.

  14. el donaldo says:

    I get that the historical analogies here are meant to show how the less organized group loses grasp as soon as the revolutionary moment passes, but I’m less clear how they may apply specifically to problems with Occupy. 1) We’re hardly at a revolutionary moment here, and 2) Who exactly is poised to swoop in and take advantage of Occupy’s confusion if we were? The Tea Party? I don’t think so. More like the status quo all over again.

  15. Kal says:

    That is the key lesson of history. In February 1917 a mass movement took to the streets of the Russian Empire and overthrew the tsar. But because they were the best organized, it was the Bolsheviks who ultimately prevailed, even though most Russians seemed to prefer a more moderate and democratic outcome. In February 1979 a mass movement that had been in the streets of Iran for nearly a year finally toppled the shah. Many of the leaders of that movement wanted Iran to become a western-style liberal democracy. What they got was the Islamic Republic, because the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers were by far the best organized group in the country.

    In February 2011 a mass movement took to the streets of Egypt and overthrew Hosni Mubarak. But because they were the best organized, it was the Muslim Brotherhood that won the fall elections and is now poised to govern Egypt.

    This is just terrible history and I’m surprised to see a history professor quoting it favorably. In February 1917, the Mensheviks, SRs, and Kadets had substantially larger organizations than the Bolsheviks, which is why the former controlled the Soviets and the latter set up a Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks took over only after the rest had lost popular support after months in power. The Bolsheviks’ commitment to organization mattered, and differentiated them from say the contemporary Spartacist League in Germany, but power by no means simply fell to the best prepared.

    I know less about Iran, where the description quoted rings a bit truer. But it’s worth noting that the Iranian left were dominated by Stalinists – Tudeh and the guerrillas – who had a strong commitment to a very rigid and centralized form of organization. They lost out because of various political weaknesses, not because of some kind of anarchist anti-party tendency.

    Finally we come to Egypt, where the central problem with Cruickshank’s analysis is that the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t, in fact, in power. The SCAF is. It remains to be seen who will end up on top when the situation stabilizes, and it could just as easily be SCAF and the forces of reaction, or the left and the workers’ movement, as the Muslim Brothers. The Brotherhood’s advantage in organization doesn’t automatically make up for its intrinsic internal tensions and its probable inability to actually deliver a better life for most Egyptians.

  16. BradP says:

    Considering progressives tend to want to accomplish their goals by electing more and better democrats, why add a grassroots middleman?

    I mean, how far off am I in reading this as saying: “Progressives should stop focusing on electing Elizabeth Warren and start focusing on creating grassroots movements to elect Elizabeth Warren”?

    • I read “grassroots” as being involved in all levels of politics day in and day out, not just a surge around elections. Kind of like the difference between going to church every Sunday and making faith part of your life vs. logging some pew time at Christmas and Easter and not thinking about faith the rest of the year.

      • I’d put slightly a different edge on it – what progressives need is a political machine, so that they are involved, not merely in general elections, not merely in primary elections, but in the very structures that shape the culture and environment of the party.

        That’s what grassroots means – acting not as an outside force trying to influence candidates, but as a constitutive element of the party.

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