The Occupy Wall Street movement demonstrates that the United States still has a Left, despite recent electoral misfortunes, and its weaker political infrastructure.
The American Left does not own a television network. It is out-gunned by the sheer number of conservative talk radio shows and stations. Conservative think tanks are less intellectual than their liberal counterparts and are more focused on building constituencies, alliances, networks, and institutions, rather than confining themselves to just advancing some new ideas in some new forum.
Despite these negatives, there are still a lot of the citizenry that would self-identify as “progressives,” tend to identity with positions that are “liberal,” and have candidate preferences that are shaped by certain progressive issue concerns and values.
Progressives, however, have been creative in catalyzing new social movements – civil rights, environment, women, anti-war, gay, and so on. But these efforts have tended to be more episodic and impermanent than the Right’s. Efforts rose and fell as a function of a candidate (McGovern, McCarthy, Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson), an event (e.g., primary fights with incumbents, platform drafting) or an issue. Often something was accomplished, politically and policy-wise, but the roots tended to be shallow and organizations were not especially strengthened.
Many liberal groups also tended to follow funding fads, while conservatives kept their eyes on the prize – winning.
All these factors tend to magnify the tendency of the Left toward factionalism, political marginality, and ideological sectarianism. This is ironic, given the fact that average Americans tend to be more liberal in action than ethos.
Let’s shift our gaze, back to America’s newest social movement.
Despite its growth across the globe, Occupy Wall Street is a fragile movement. For many participants, this is their first political act, besides voting. And it has not uttered any policy position beyond statements of values, hope, and anger. I worry that the winter season, the eventual internal argument, along with heavy-handed efforts to reach beyond helping the movement to trying to control it, might sap its newly discovered power, energy, and patriotism.
This is a case where the movement must get more specific than value statements and take a few general positions. Here is my starting list:
- Jobs — lots of them,
- Anti-trust activities to shrink the size of the financial services industry,
- A more intense attack on the foreclosure problem,
- Naming a strong and thoughtful head of the new consumer agency,
- Adoption of a version of the “Volcker Rule” to limit speculative investments by banks,,
- Exploration of the wisdom of a so-called “Tobin Tax” of foreign currency transactions, and
- Advancing the cause of public campaign financing.
Advancing some of these ideas forward (and maybe even enacting one or two would be very empowering for the movement.
Some day folks will have to go home. Prior to that, further conversations need to take place.
Should Occupy become a new organization? If so, who will head it up? How political should it get? How might it improve its competence talking up its issues and ideas?
What should is public engagements efforts look like? What about book clubs? The social media? Without avoiding the political work and ideological talk that is needed, how should it maintain its openness to independents and stay pragmatic and principled? How could Occupy become the recruiting ground for a new cohort of future candidates, organizers, intellectuals, and campaign staff? How might be celebrate our work and our past and current heroes? And how do we party and play – be idealistic and practical?
We shall see. But I for one believe that the time for the conversation regarding such matters is here.
Bill Schweke recently retired from the nonprofit CFED.