Sign at Occupy Des Moines in October 2011

From the movement’s early days, there have been commentators who have suggested the Occupy movement really needs to get involved in elections. They’ve proposed running Occupy candidates. Some have gone as far as explicitly suggesting that Occupy become the Tea Party of the left. Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones is the latest to advocate this idea.

Harkinson contends, “If the movement is going to sustain the kind of momentum that captured the nation’s attention six months ago, it must begin to evolve in a different direction.” He demonstrates he has the authority to make such a recommendation because he has been reporting on Occupy for months. He indicates he has been reluctant to put forth his personal views on the movement because he did not want to be “quick to judge” like other passing observers.

It is not until the final few paragraphs that Harkinson shares some of the thinking behind his call for Occupy to participate in elections:

Occupy activists, many of whom don’t have a lot of experience with politics, seem to think that MoveOn is taking its orders from the White House. In reality, MoveOn polls its 7 million members on which candidates to support, and it often runs campaigns to unseat Blue Dog Democrats when it thinks a more progressive candidate has a shot at winning. But whatever. What Occupy really ought to do if it intends to live on is plunge directly into electoral politics on the local, state, and congressional level. It ought to co-opt the Democratic Party.

Though Occupy could support many sympathetic candidates in Democratic primaries, some pundits haven’t pushed the idea because they worry about a tea party effect on the left, with liberal Democrats losing to Republicans in the general election. Yet other than a third-party bid, with its potential for another Nader debacle, this may be the only way to command Washington’s attention. Many occupiers believe it’s futile, however, because they’d never win against an avalanche of unregulated corporate political spending.

It is clear that like many progressive Democrats, Harkinson harbors political bigotry toward individuals who would run as third-party candidates. He thinks if Occupy ran “third-party” candidates there could be “another Nader debacle.” He invokes Nader, even though he is talking about Occupy getting involved in local, state and congressional elections, not the presidential election. That suggests Harkinson thinks all “third-party” candidates would be “spoilers” and Occupy should not support them.

The invocation of Nader is a reflexive response that progressive Democrats tend to have to people who display interest in challenging the two-party system. It completely ignores the fact that the reason why Occupy has been able to flourish is because there is so much anger toward a system that has been rigged by the two major political parties.

Harkinson naively believes that progressives can change the Democratic Party from within. That is essentially what he is arguing when he says Occupy should “co-opt the Democratic Party.” By advocating this, he is serving a function that progressive publications like Mother Jones and progressive groups like Progressive Democrats of America have historically served. He is, whether intended or not, deterring the creation of alternatives to the two parties. And he is overlooking the history of efforts to change the Democratic Party from within, which include Dennis Kucinich’s campaigns, Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, writer Upton Sinclair’s 1934 primary victory, and Howard Dean’s eventual demise in 2004.

Additionally, it appears Harkinson would like Occupy to be a big tent for all those who are upset with the system, and then have Occupy candidates channel this anger into voting for candidates who will run on a Democratic Party ticket. There is great reason to be concerned with funneling any energy and momentum that Occupy has into running Democrats. As Ron Reagan said on “Hardball” on MSNBC in October:

REAGAN: This is a movement that has a broad-based anger and the challenge it seems to me for the Democratic Party if they want to somehow join the movement or co-opt the movement, however you want to put it, is that these folks are just as mad at them as they are with the Republicans. The Republicans may be more egregiously in the hip pocket of Wall Street and the bankers but the Democrats are too. There are plenty of Democratic congressmen and senators who have staked their whole careers on providing tax loopholes for the richest 1%. They’re not the natural allies of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement…

…The problem is, again, that these people are angry at a system that has been rigged by both parties to serve moneyed interests. The Democrats have been complicit in that just as the Republicans have been complicit in that. Your question to Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, “What are you going to offer these people?” is exactly the question. What are the Democrats going to offer these people? Are they going to throw some bankers in jail? Are they going to close the loopholes for the richest 1%? I’m not so sure that all the Democrats are on board with that.

It is appropriate for Harkinson and other writers like him to be concerned about whether Occupy will fizzle out, but they must not ignore why it is likely that Occupy will fizzle out. The power elites have done everything to not respond to this movement since its early days. The conventional wisdom that politicians and establishment media have promoted—a “leaderless” movement will go nowhere, Occupy needs a message, they have a drug or rape problem, the movement has faded and is unlikely to resurge, etc—has had some effect in making Americans skeptical of the movement. Occupy has also been faced with great suppression from city governments, which have ordered police forces to crack down on the movement. All of this has played a role in extinguishing the spark of Occupy, yet the movement continues to press on and organize.

Occupy has not brought more change because the ability of US citizens to influence power has been neutralized by corporate and special interest money. It has been neutralized by bureaucracies whose existence in government is more important than the damage they do to liberty and justice in society. And, it has been neutralized by two parties that give Americans the illusion of choice by citing the other party’s most frightening and upsetting features to intimidate citizens into perpetuating and reinforcing the worst aspects of the system.

Running candidates could, in the short-term, provide some needed energy to the movement, but Occupy has always been about a long-term vision for society. The “Declaration of Occupation of New York City” put forward by Occupy Wall Street was an indictment of a corrupt system, which Democrats and Republicans are complicit in perpetuating. The call for people to assert their power and grow the spirit of direct democracy was not a call for Americans to participate in kabuki democracy.

Occupy can have an impact on politics in this election, but they can do it best by confronting the system and exposing it. As groups did when the GOP primary season began, people should continue to protest outside 2012 Election events. At debates there should be groups confronting both Obama and Romney. Occupy should be aggressively pushing Obama to address issues he is often unwilling to openly address like corporate personhood and cracking down on corporate crime and corporate welfare.

The movement should be calling for changes to the winner-take-all system of elections by advocating for meaningful electoral reform, like majority elections, changes to ballot access laws or instant run-off voting, etc. They should be pushing for open debates in elections, where candidates from all parties are allowed to participate and are not shut out by Democratic and Republican party machines. And, they should be consistently pointing to how campaign finance reform would make elections more democratic.

In conclusion, the late great historian Howard Zinn wrote in an op-ed in 2008—the same year that Barack Obama was running for president—that Americans “need to free” their selves “from the election madness engulfing the entire society, including the left.” He said people should be “taking direct action against the obstacles to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

…Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes-the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.

But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.

Let’s remember that even when there is a “better” candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore…

Occupy may not have reached “critical mass” yet. It may not be that movement that can force the White House and Congress to change “national policy on matters of war and social justice.” But, if energy and resources are put into running candidates, it’s virtually certain there will be little chance of growing a movement and building a force that can tug this nation in a less corporate and destructive direction.