One of the most interesting questions for the Occupy movement relates to how it might engage with the existing political system, especially with an election year looming.

Many respected voices from outside the movement have urged that it work from within the Democratic Party, much as the Tea Party has done with the GOP.  See, for example, this recent piece by George Lakoff, where he draws a comparison to the Tea Party:

What's next? That's the question being asked as cities close down Occupy encampments and winter approaches.

The answer is simple. Just as the Tea Party gained power, the Occupy movement can. The Occupy movement has raised awareness of a great many of America's real issues and has organized supporters across the country. Next comes electoral power. Wall Street exerts its force through the money that buys elections and elected officials. But ultimately, the outcome of elections depends on people willing to take to the streets - registering voters, knocking on doors, distributing information, speaking in local venues. The way to change the nation is to occupy elections.

Whatever Occupiers may think of the Democrats, they can gain power within the Democratic Party and hence in election contests all over America. All they have to do is join Democratic clubs, stick to their values, speak out very loudly and work in campaigns for candidates at every level who agree with their values. If Occupiers can run tent camps, organize food kitchens and cleanup brigades, run general assemblies and use social media, they can take over and run a significant part of the Democratic Party.

And from, Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker:

For O.W.S., though, there is danger ahead. Winter is coming. The strategy of static outdoor encampments is straining the patience even of sympathetic mayors in cities like Oakland, where last week riot police stormed the site and a Marine veteran was left in critical condition. If the weather and the cops pare the numbers in the camps, it’s far from unimaginable that ideologues in the mold of the Old New Left—people for whom the problem is “capitalism” per se, as opposed to a political economy rigged to benefit the rich at the expense of the rest—could end up dominant. As it is, the Occupiers’ brand of romantic participatory democracy can too easily render their decision-making vulnerable to a truculent few. In the most notorious example, Representative John Lewis, the revered civil-rights hero, was prevented from speaking at Occupy Atlanta—not because the crowd didn’t want to hear from him (the great majority did, as they signalled, in the movement’s semaphore language, with raised hands and wiggling fingers) but because one man clenched his fists and crossed his forearms, thereby exercising a consensus-breaking “block.” A vegan filibuster, you might say. The pollsters tell us that Americans like O.W.S.’s essential message. They like the Occupiers, too—not as much as they like the message, but more than they like the Tea Party. But if the pressures of hypothermia, frustration, and correcter-than-thou one-upmanship converge to push them toward more provocative, less mellow forms of civil disobedience—“occupying” a nice warm state capitol building, for example—the messengers will mess up the message. And the public will cross its fists.

Unlike the Tea Party, which was born when the alien/socialist enemy held all three of Washington’s elected redoubts, Occupy Wall Street inhabits a different political world, one whose most prominent figure, the President, has fallen short of not only many Occupiers’ hopes but also his own—in large part because of the Republicans’ conscienceless exploitation of the perverse veto points of the congressional machine. Yes, O.W.S. has “changed the conversation.” But talk, however necessary, is cheap. Ultimately, inevitably, the route to real change has to run through politics—the politics of America’s broken, god-awful, immutably two-party electoral system, the only one we have. The Tea Partiers know that. Do the Occupiers?

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The choice to get in bed with the GOP was not without controversy for many Tea Partiers, who felt that their grass-roots efforts (yes--there really is, or at least was, a grass roots Tea Party!) were utterly coopted by the GOP machine and big money from the Koch brothers, Dick Armey,etc.  It seems that the lesson being learned from their experience by many on-the-ground Occupiers is to avoid that fate by adopting a strict "non-partisan" stance (officially, at least) and to cast the Dems, and affiliated groups like MoveOn, as part of a system that cannot be reformed from within.

Here at Occupy Cafe, Mark E. Smith has argued passionately for an election boycott as the only rational response to a system that fails to count our votes accurately and is utterly corrupted by big money.  While I am sympathetic to this argument, for me (and many others, I imagine) this stand evokes painful memories of Nader 2000.  The world would be a very different place today if he had stepped out of Florida, voter suppression and recount-rigging notwithstanding.  No way Gore takes us into Iraq after 9/11.  Instead, I could well imagine him using the attacks as a launching pad for a global shift from oil to renewable energy.  

And then there's the Supreme Court. Gore wins, no Roberts or Alito and Citizens United goes the other way, not to mention a host of other crucial decisions.  And the winner in 2012 is likely to get one or more appointments as well.

On the other hand, we have Obama behaving time and again as if he is captive to the same monied interests and/or deeply misguided institutional biases and assumptions that have characterized presidential politics for decades across both party lines.  And then there's the fact that he and the and others at the highest levels of the Democratic establishment have at best turned a blind eye to the abusive tactics of police towards the encampments, while many Democratic mayors have been active parties to it.  So it is understandable that many in the movement are deeply unhappy with Obama and the Dems, are protesting the DCCC despite its expressed support for the movement, etc.

There's another important aspect to his situation as well: the Occupy movement may be nominally non-partisan, but its "members" and supporters also clearly lean Left on average, to the extent that such a spectrum has meaning.  If we want to be "non," or even "trans" partisan in any meaningful sense, we need to start by acknowledging who is currently in the room, and whether or not that room is truly welcoming to people who consider themselves Centrists, Right of Center, Libertarian, etc.

I had one Occupy Cafe member remark that he had never seen so many angry liberals gathered in a single phone call before.  He almost didn't come back.  Fortunately, when he did he was pleasantly surprised when his random small group breakout landed him with someone whose views were far closer to his own.  I think that for now, we need to treat representatives from portions of the politcal spectrum outside the progressive wing as precious and honored guestsin this house.  Otherwise our "99%" slogan is merely empty rhetoric.

At the same time, we should be honest about the fact that many, although certainly not all, of the policy ideas being advocated throughout the movement have a history of being associated with the Liberal/Progressive end of the political spectrum.  If we deny that and try to limit peoples' energy only to those ideas that have a chance of appealing across the board in the current US political environment (getting money out of politics comes to mind as the signature initiative with this potential), I believe we will stifle much of the creative juice that is currently flowing and create a huge schism in the movement.

So... I am interested in hearing what YOU think about these questions, and in seeing if either some consensus or a clear outline of the various positions that define this terrain can emerge.  I suggest that you limit your posts to a single idea at a time, and also try to keep them fairly brief, in order to help keep this thread coherent, easily followed and in the nature of a dialogue rather than a series of diatribes.  

I realize I haven't helped matters by mixing a few different points together under this general theme.  Nor have I practiced the brevity I am now preaching.  Nevertheless, I hope that this discussion can model a higher order of "asynchronous" dialogue.  Are you up for the challenge?

We might start with these questions: 

  • How might the Occupy movement effect major change in the near term without working within the current political system?
  • How might the Occupy movement engage in electoral politics without being co-opted by major players within the political system?
  • What does it mean to be a movement of "the 99%?"  For example, the latest Pew Research Center survey shows that only 38% of Americans believe that global warming is caused by human activity and is a very serious problem.  Does that mean global warming is off the table for the Occupy movement?

Please note that this is a hosted discussion.  We will periodically be asking people to step back or step up, to make sure it is balanced and there is space for all voices to be heard.  We will also ask that side conversations that emerge be taken onto new discussion threads so that this core conversation remains focused and readable.  Thank you in advance for your help with this, and if you are interested in hosting a discussion yourself, please email


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I spent many years in the election integrity movement, Mr. Blue, hoping that ways could be found to reform our electoral system.

I may be pessimistic in predicting how I think the Supreme Court would react, but with regard to the electoral system I'm relying on solid facts which have happened in the past and been fully documented.

I'm a bit of a radical thinker, Mr. Blue, so rather than focus on solving problems, I tend to want to get to the root (radical) cause of those problems to try to ensure that those or similar problems will not recur.

Rather than focus on any particularly horrific Supreme Court decision, I prefer to focus on why the Supreme Court has the power to make such horrific decisions in the first place. 

As an unelected body whose decisions cannot be appealed, the Supreme Court has the Divine Right of Kings from which our founders shed blood to free us. Rather than this power residing in one king, it resides in a group of nine. 

In Germany there is more than one Supreme Court, their justices are elected rather than appointed, there are qualifications for office (other than being loyal to the President and the President's political party) that justices must meet, and it is a quite different system.

Our Supreme Court is incompatible with the most basic principles of a democracy or a republic. They are not elected, they are not obligated to represent the people so the people have no way to exercise our will through them, their decisions cannot be appealed, they can be appointed on the basis of cronyism rather than competency, and no matter how bad their behavior they can only be removed from office by Congress, which is so complicit in bad behavior itself that it is unlikely to penalize anyone in power for similar corruption.

Congress has only once attempted to impeach a Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Chase in 1804, but he was acquitted. Congress has never impeached a sitting Member of Congress. There were two attempts by Congress to impeach a President, 1868 and 1998, but both were acquitted. There have been a few lower level impeachments, but as far as the President, Congress itself, and the Supreme Court, Congress is batting zero.

If it's pessimistic of me not to put much faith in either Congress or the Supreme Court to reform themselves or to check each other, I'm guilty as charged.

Interesting and, I think, relevant article on BradBlog, particularly the videos:

Brad is vehemently opposed to my election boycott advocacy and so is everyone else on his website. His focus is how corrupt our elections are, but like all professional election integrity activists, he has to keep people voting in corrupt elections in order to continue to make a living by documenting exactly how corrupt our electoral system is. 

I came across the site Money Outta Politics which has a good idea. The basic idea is to work within the current political system to leverage a small number of voters (~20%) willing to vote based on a single issue. These voters would pledge to only vote for candidates (from either party) that will sponsor legislation for electoral reform.

I see this tactic as being more achievable than either amending the Constitution, or calling a constitutional convention. The goal of electoral reform is an issue that is widely supported and would serve to unite Occupiers and non-Occupiers alike.

"One of the most interesting questions for the Occupy movement relates to how it might engage with the existing political system..."

It's interesting, perhaps, but, as a form of trying to work levers that are hard to find and difficult to reach, probably an enormous and demoralizing waste of attention, time and energy.  As long as most of us are mere consumers, we can neither declare nor attract independence.  That was not the case in America in the second half of the 1700s.

We need the functional equivalent of a new continent.  Like our forbears, we need to emigrate to where we are or want to be.  Occupy yourself and the place that matters to you.

"The real voyage of discovery rests not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."  - Marcel Proust

Thank you all for the energy and thought you are putting into this conversation. I request now that we try to "step up and step back," allowing room for voices that are not being heard to emerge if they care too. Also, to be brief and to separate ideas into individual posts. I get overwhelemd when I see I page worth of text. My brain automatically says "diatribe" when what I yearn for is dialogue--a process where we think together as opposed to arguing with one another.

Can we step out of our personal attachment to a particular position for a moment and take stock together? I am wondering what we are learning from this discussion so far? If we go back to the original questions I asked, are any themes emerging? Deeper questions? Can we construct a simple outline of the range of opinions and perhaps a sense of how widely various views appear to be shared?
Or not.

I was thinking the same thing.  The first two of the three questions that you posted are more pertinent to electoral reform;

  • How might the Occupy movement effect major change in the near term without working within the current political system?
  • How might the Occupy movement engage in electoral politics without being co-opted by major players within the political system?

IMHO, the statement of the first question should be open to either working within or without the current political system.  Sure, everyone agrees that the current political system has been corrupted, but it is the system that corrupts the politicians, not the other way around.

One commenter said we need to kick the whole Congress out -- good luck on that one.  One commenter pointed out that the Occupiers need a "credible threat" to make the necessary changes. I posted a comment several days ago, that suggested that the Occupiers leverage a small number of voters focused on a single issue to get the necessary legislation passed to reform the electoral system. 

As in the case of the single phone conversation with the bunch of angry liberals, the more that this conversation does not address the fundamental questions, the greater the chance that people will not come back.

As a strong supporter of the Occupy movement and someone who worked for decades in and around the federal government I urge Occupy supporters to vote against every incumbent, from President Obama to every incumbent Representative and Senator.  In our corrupt, dysfunctional system with far too little genuine political competition, the primary need is to send a clear message to the two-party plutocracy: we the people have had enough; we reject the whole system!!!!  Sign up at the Americans Elect website and also the getmoneyout one.

And suppose, Joel, that Occupy supporters and everyone else turned out to vote against every incumbent, and 90% of the electorate turned out and voted for nonincumbents. How would that stop the Supreme Court from ignoring the popular vote and installing the President of their choice (as it did in 2000), and Congress from ignoring the popular vote and installing the candidates of their choice (as they did in 2006)?

Because the popular vote, Constitutionally, according to the Supreme Court, which has the sole power to interpret the Constitution, doesn't have to be counted, and because Congress has the sole Constitutional power to judge the "elections, returns, and qualifications" of its Members, the popular vote is meaningless. Not to mention that more than 90% of votes cast in the US are tallied by central tabulators which are easily hacked in ways that leave no auditable trace, and are therefore totally unverifiable. We can know that an election was stolen, but we have no way to prove it in court or before Congress. And both the Supreme Court and Congress can simply find that although the election was undoubtedly stolen, it is more important that we have representation than that we have representatives who will actually represent us, and let the fraudulent results stand.

The only way to "reject the whole system" is to stop voting in its elections.

I long have argued for NOT voting in elections to drive down the fraction of eligible voters actually voting, and thus removing the apparent legitimacy of US democracy.  But clearly many Americans are deeply brainwashed and still have the delusional belief that voting for their chosen candidates somehow will produce something positive.  Clearly, history shows they are wrong and that voting for the lesser evil is still voting for EVIL.  BUT, if you still feel obligated to vote, best to send a clear message to the political establishment that you are willing to vote out incumbents because of terrible performance in office.  Finally, we need constitutional amendments to fix our broken system.

Our system isn't broken, Joel. It is functioning exactly the way that the thirty-nine plutocrats who wrote and signed the Constitution intended it to, so that those like themselves who owned the country, the 1% as we call them these days, would always run the country. It is still the evil plutocracy it was designed to be, still committing genocide for profit, and still supported by those who would prefer that their own conditions of slavery be a bit less harsh, but are not opposed to slavery as an institution as long as they can see others treated more harshly than they are.

Perhaps the fact that I am 72 and have lived long enough in the USA to see first hand that there was a time when the nation was much, much better with economic justice and equality explains why we see things somewhat differently.  If you actually studied data, for example, you would learn that in the several decades after World War II there was a very different and much better, nicer, fairer USA.  Then things changed as the rich and corporate elites realized they could buy the government and control public policy; this happened around 1980.  I have been a dissident activist for many decades and it takes energy to not let cynicism and pessimism remove your ability to keep fighting for revolution and reform.


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