Occupy the Polls: a modest theory of political change

I don’t think it would shock you to learn that public disgust at the political system is at a record high. In the space of this discontent, two movements were born: the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. They are not equal, and unless there is a serious course shift in tactics, only one of them will have a lasting impact beyond bending the political conversation to their concerns. Unfortunately, the one that looks to have a lasting impact is the Tea Party.

On the face of it, it would seem that Occupy would leave a bigger mark than the Tea Party. Its popularity vastly outweighs that of the Tea Party. Occupy’s potential political coalition includes much broader segments of the population than the narrow band of the far right wing that comprise the Tea Party. So why at this juncture will the Tea Party come out on top? The answer can be found by looking at how the two movements differ in their attitudes towards voting.

The Tea Party found success in a multitude of ways. Its first major triumph was unleashing a torrent of anger toward elected officials at town hall meetings during the August Congressional recess of 2009. This outpouring of rage shifted the political conversation towards public discontent with the still unpublished Health Care Reform bill. It was one of the first chinks in President Obama’s formidable armor.

The Tea Party didn’t stop there, though. It instead turned its sights towards electoral politics in a profoundly brilliant way. It started running and supporting Tea Party candidates in Republican primaries across the country. It targeted incumbents that were insufficiently supportive of their cause, like Bob Bennett of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. It supported up and coming politicians like Marco Rubio and Rand Paul against establishment types like Charlie Crist and Trey Grayson. Tea Party activists were all over the place, doing unsexy, grueling, under the radar work to support candidates steeped in the Tea Party ideology.

In many cases their efforts fell short. However, in races all over the country — from high profile congressional races to state house contests — they took to the primary process like a fish to water and molded the Republican Party in their image by working to elect candidates that were philosophically in tune with them. And then they started to shape the country to their liking by carrying these same candidates to victory on Election Day.

Tea Partiers all worked in different ways to make sure this happened, but the single most significant way the Tea Party impacted the American political system is that they turned out to vote when the other team didn’t. Sure, they wore funny hats, engaged in direct action protests and made a lot of noise, but ultimately they successfully made the transition from shifting the conversation to substantive electoral results by voting in larger numbers than their opponents. They made change happen by electing people who supported their goals.

Occupy Wall Street is doing very little of this. Occupy might have shifted the political conversation in a fundamentally important way, but it doesn’t seem to have any interest in electoral politics whatsoever. Its attitude toward the broader electoral sphere can be summed up by a largely “A Pox on Both Your Houses” attitude of disengagement. According to large swaths of the Occupy movement, the most meaningful way they can bring about change is through the physical occupations and in the conversations they are having at the consensus-driven General Assemblies.

The problem is General Assemblies and occupations alone cannot bring about change. Words and resolutions might create a political philosophy; occupations, marches and the police crackdowns that follow might also bring media attention to the cause, but those are only a few of the components needed to bring about the true change that a movement like Occupy so desires.

The way to make a lasting impact is to have a majority (or supermajority, in the case of the consensus driven Senate) of elected officials in tune with the demands of the people making public policy for the 99% instead of the 1%. The only way to get those sympathetic officials into office is by voting. But accusing both parties of corruption and being unreceptive to the people is not an excuse to disengage from the voting booth and the electoral process.

If Occupy feels the parties are unresponsive, then they must make them responsive. Run primaries against Democrats (and Republicans!) that support policies counter to the movement’s goals. They don’t even need to win the campaign every time to get results. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas was merely threatened by a primary and as a result moved significantly to the left during the remainder of her time in office. If that doesn’t work, Occupy can form a third party and attempt to topple the two-party system.

This might not be as glorious or immediately satisfying as toppling a corrupt regime by occupying a public space while working towards a broad national consensus for the path forward, but it is far more likely to produce results. After all, we cannot build a consensus of the entire political system, or the entire nation: it’s simply too large. The way we resolve differences is through the act of voting. Democracy is hard. Change through voting is slow and tedious. It takes time, and a whole lot of concentrated effort, but it happens.

To make a lasting impact, we must Occupy the Polls. Because all the yelling and screaming about the oppressed 99 percent won’t make a difference if the only people that show up on Election Day are the 1 percent.

Peter is a junior. You can reach him at pgross1@swarthmore.edu.

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