11.12.11

OWS's Refusal to Endorse an Agenda or Candidates Could Hurt Democrats

Unlike the Tea Party, those involved in Occupy Wall Street have refused to endorse a specific agenda, or any candidates, which could spell trouble for Obama and the Democrats.

Suddenly, the community organizer in chief is looking over his left shoulder.

The occupiers who've effectively channeled America's post-meltdown disappointment with its political elected leaders are hunkering down for the winter to try and hold and consolidate the popular political and physical ground they've taken thus far. Despite having lost their signature park last night to Mayor Bloomberg, the movement has emerged as a political force to be reckoned with. Come spring, If they succeed, expect them come spring to reemerge with a vengeance as the press shifts its attention to the role they might play in November.

Asked if the loosely defined, increasingly potent movement, whose slogans have already been commandeered by mainstream Democrats, was concerned with electing Obama or at least in not electing Romney (my apologies for spoiling the remaining 15 GOP debates), Occupy Wall Street organizers shrugged.

“Either way,” said Jeff Smith of the occupation’s media-team working group. “Obama has been able to pass legislation that John McCain never could have. Could McCain have extended the Bush tax cuts? I don’t think he could have. And I think escalating the Afghanistan War would have been much more difficult for McCain. I don’t want us to go farther right, but it’s the same reason why I feel like CNN and MSNBC are more insidious than Fox news because they give the appearance of a choice or balance—it’s when the Democratic Party sold out to the corporate forces that we lost our country, not when the Republicans did it.”

In retrospect, 2000 may have represented something even bigger than Ralph Nader’s ego.

“I don’t think it would be catastrophic [to elect Romney] because the whole point of this movement is that there’s no choice so on some level it doesn’t really matter all that much who the next president is,” Smith continued. “It’s totally up to Obama how much this movement hammers him. If he wants to get on the right side of the issues we’re talking about, I would say this would be a huge benefit for him.”

Of course, that hasn't stopped the president from dog whistling—the sloganeer who branded "Change You Can Believe In" now tells voters he's fighting for the "interests of 99 percent of Americans"—but it's yet to pierce many ears it pierced few ears within Zuccotti Park, where few signs mentioned Obama and most of those that do are did were hostile to him.

The veterans and inheritors of the “Global Justice” activist agenda that caught fire in Seattle in 1999 and was tamped down after 9/11 are once again trying to build a national and international political movement, whose ties to the parks and the people living in and spending time in them is more complicated and fraught than has been widely reported or understood. In dozens of hours of conversation with members of the working groups—they’re not exactly leaders, but they are the people who have put in time and work and made the tactical and strategic decisions that have steered the movement  over the past two months of explosive and unexpected growth—Obama and the 2012 race have rarely come up except when I’ve asked about them.

‘The Tea Partiers were actually Republicans, and I would say that most people out here are not Democrats,’ said OWS organizer Jeff Smith.

The movement seems determined to think in more ambitious terms than election cycles, which may just make them a potent force in the coming one as the cascade of economic bad news continues. The refusal to make demands or offer leaders to negotiate with and the protection that provides against concessions will make this a tough group for Democrats to coopt, or even count on to show up at the polls.

In this sense, at least, the occupiers are a lot like the Tea Party: willing to punish presumptive allies for half measures. But where the Tea Partiers have a clear demand—less government spending—aimed squarely at Republicans in Congress, the occupation has built a big tent (pun intended) in part by tabling any specific demands and ignoring all present political realities to ask for the moon. While the Beltway has focused on penny-ante measures and cheap gimmicks like the president’s broken-up jobs bill and the so-called supercommittee, the occupiers seem perfectly comfortable with the prospect of claiming Obama as their first scalp to line the road they hope leads to goals like restoring Glass-Steagall (one example I’ve frequently heard organizers offer when asked, “what do you people want?”)

“But the Tea Partiers were actually Republicans, and I would say that most people out here are not Democrats,” said Smith, who agreed that both movements created centrifugal pressures, but warned against presuming too much affinity joining the organizers and occupiers with the president and his party. “I certainly would never self-identify as a Democrat.”

That difference will also open up space between the occupiers and their allies and backers in organized labor, who have certainly hitched their cart to Obama and the Democratic Party. “If they say, we’ve helped you so now we want the movement to endorse a certain candidate, I’d say that they’ve been doing this for the wrong reasons,” said Daniel Zetah, an active member of several working groups and a community organizer just returned from a decade working in that capacity in Tasmania (he keeps getting asked what language they speak there!).

Stressing his appreciation for organized labor and the “credence” it brought to the occupation, he warned, “If they’re expecting us to turn around and endorse a certain candidate because of their support, that expectation—I don’t believe that is a founded expectation.”

“This isn’t part of party politics,” said Zetah. “This is very apolitical as far as I’m concerned, and there isn’t anything that a politician can do to actually address the concerns that this movement has, because it’s the system of politics, it’s not the politicians. It’s f-----.”