The 2012 election is almost a full year away and nobody knows who is running against President Obama, but that didn’t stop Mary Kay Henry, the D.C.-based National President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), from announcing last week that her organization endorses President Obama for re-election. That’s not surprising — while many unions have exhibited political independence, SEIU officials have long been among Obama’s closest and most loyal allies in Washington — but what was notable here was how brazenly Henry exploited the language of the Occupy movement to justify her endorsement of the Democratic Party leader: “We need a leader willing to fight for the needs of the 99 percent . . . .Our economy and democracy have been taken over by the wealthiest one percent.”
But now SEIU’s effort to convert and degrade the Occupy movement into what SEIU’s national leadership is — a loyal arm of the DNC and the Obama White House — has become even more overt, as Greg Sargent reports today:
One of the enduring questions about Occupy Wall Street has been this: Can the energy unleashed by the movement be leveraged behind a concrete political agenda and push for change that will constitute a meaningful challenge to the inequality and excessive Wall Street influence highlighted by the protests?
A coalition of labor and progressive groups is about to unveil its answer to that question. Get ready for “Occupy Congress.”
The coalition — which includes unions like SEIU and CWA and groups like the Center for Community Change — is currently working on a plan to bus thousands of protesters from across the country to Washington, where they will congregate around the Capitol from December 5-9, SEIU president Mary Kay Henry tells me in an interview. . . .
One goal of the protests, Henry says, is to pressure Republicans to support Obama’s jobs creation proposals. . . .
“The reason we’re targeting Republicans is because this is about jobs,” she said. “The Republicans’ insistence that no revenue can be put on the table is the reason we’re not creating jobs in this country. We want to draw a stark contrast between a party that wants to scapegoat immigrants, attack public workers, and protect the rich, versus a president who has been saying he wants America to get back to work and that everybody should pay their fair share.”
But Henry added she salutes Occupy Wall Street for finding fault with both parties, adding: “We agree that on domestic social programs, we have not won the day with either party. And we are applying pressure to both.”
Having SEIU officials — fresh off endorsing the Obama re-election campaign — shape, fund, dictate and decree an anti-GOP, pro-Obama march is about as antithetical as one can imagine to what the Occupy movement has been. And pretending that the ongoing protests are grounded in the belief that the GOP is the party of the rich while the Democrats are the party of the working class is likely to fool just about nobody other than those fooled by that already. The strength and genius of OWS has been its steadfast refusal to (a) fall into the trap that ensnared the Tea Party of being exploited as a partisan tool and (b) integrate itself into the very political institutions which it’s scorning and protesting.
As I noted several weeks ago, WH-aligned groups such as the Center for American Progress have made explicitly clear that they are going to try to convert OWS into a vote-producing arm for the Obama 2012 campaign, and that’s what “Occupy Congress” is designed to achieve. I believed then and — having spent the last few weeks talking with many OWS protesters around the country — believe even more so now that these efforts will inevitably fail: those who have animated the Occupy movement are not motivated by partisan allegiance or an overarching desire to devote themselves to one of the two parties. In fact, one of the original Occupy groups — as opposed to partisan organizations swooping in to exploit it — has announced its own D.C. occupation to, in part, “demonstrate the failure of the Democrats and Republicans in Congress to represent the views of the majority of people.”
I disagree with the prevailing wisdom that OWS should begin formulating specific legislative demands and working to elect specific candidates. I have no doubt that many OWS protesters will ultimately vote and even work for certain candidates — and that makes sense — but the U.S. desperately needs a citizen movement devoted to working outside of political and legal institutions and that is designed to be a place of dissent against it. Integrating it into that system is a way of narrowing its appeal and, worse, sapping it of its unique attributes and fear-generating potency. Even if you believe the U.S. has some sort of vibrant democracy — rather than a democracy-immune oligarchy — not all change needs to come exclusively from voting and electoral politics. Citizen movements can change the political culture in ways other than working within that pre-established electoral system; indeed, when that system becomes fundamentally corrupted, working outside of it is the only means of effectuating real change. Here’s how former IMF Chief Economist Simon Johnson put it in The Atlantic when equating the contemporary United States to the corrupted “emerging market” oligarchies which caused past financial crises on which he worked:
Squeezing the oligarchs, though, is seldom the strategy of choice among emerging-market governments. Quite the contrary: at the outset of the crisis, the oligarchs are usually among the first to get extra help from the government, such as preferential access to foreign currency, or maybe a nice tax break, or—here’s a classic Kremlin bailout technique—the assumption of private debt obligations by the government. Under duress, generosity toward old friends takes many innovative forms. Meanwhile, needing to squeeze someone, most emerging-market governments look first to ordinary working folk—at least until the riots grow too large.
That last phrase is the essence of why I hope OWS, at least for now, remains a movement that refuses to reduce itself into garden-variety electoral politics. What is missing from America is a healthy fear in the hearts and minds of the most powerful political and financial factions of the consequences of their continued pilfering, corporatism, and corrupt crony capitalism, and only this sort of movement — untethered from the pacifying rules of our political and media institutions — can re-impose that healthy fear. When both parties are captive to the same factions, then — by design, as AIPAC has so effectively shown — one can’t subvert the agenda of those factions simply by voting for one party or the other.
Moreover, what happens with fundamentally corrupted political systems is that even well-intentioned candidates — or discrete pieces of legislation that are good in the abstract — become infected and degraded when inserted into that system; if you believe that the wealthiest class anti-democratically controls political institutions (an indisputably true premise), then it makes little sense to expect specific new bills or even individual candidates inserted into that system to bring about much change. This was the same debate I had with transparency advocate Steven Aftergood when he argued that it was better to bring about transparency with anti-secrecy legislation than with the insurgent approach of WikiLeaks. As I argued then, even if one entertained the fantasy that strong, well-crafted transparency legislation could be enacted, the fact that it would be implemented within a political system controlled by Generals and intelligence community officials, and overseen by CIA-and-Pentagon-revering members of Congress, meant that any statutory framework would be so watered down (if not outright ignored) in implementation that it would be virtually irrelevant. Given how fundamentally corrupted and secrecy-obsessed the National Security State is, only a force for transparency that remained outside of that secrecy-preserving system — WikiLeaks — could bring about meaningful disclosures. That’s what I think about our oligarchy-drenched political process.
That said, people I respect and who are well-intentioned have advanced reasonable arguments as to why the Occupy movement would be well-advised to start demanding specific legislative changes and/or backing candidates, and some have even proposed ideas for how they can and should do that. Some of those arguments are compelling (though ultimately unpersuasive to me for the reasons I just described), but everyone participating in the Occupy protests can and should — and ultimately will — decide for themselves if they think their grievances are best addressed through that tactic.
But whatever else is true, the notion — advanced by SEIU — that it’s the Democratic Party and the Obama White House working to bring about these changes and implant these values of the 99% is so self-evidently false as to be insulting. Agitating for passage of the jobs bill is a perfectly reasonable and sensible step, but how can casting that in such starkly partisan terms be justified when numerous key Democratic officials opposed the bill and prevented its passage (just as an always-changing roster of numerous key Democrats — the Villains of the Moment — almost always act to protect the interests of Washington’s permanent ruling factions)?
Beyond that, and more important, does SEIU think that people will just ignore these key political facts? How does anyone think these protesters will be convinced that it’s exclusively the GOP — and not the Democratic Party and the Obama WH — who “protect the rich” when: Wall Street funded the Democrats far more than the GOP in the 2008 election; the Democrats’ key money man, Charles Schumer, is one of the most devoted Wall Street servants in the country; Obama empowered in key positions Wall Street servants such as Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, Bill Daley, Rahm Emanuel, and an endless roster of former Goldman officials; JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon has been dubbed “Obama’s favorite banker” after Obama publicly defended his post-bailout $17 million bonus; the President named the CEO of GE to head his jobs panel; the DCCC and DSCC exist to ensure the nomination of corporatist candidates and Blue Dogs whose political worldview is servitude to the lobbyist class; the Democratic President, after vocally urging an Age of Austerity, tried very hard to usher in cuts to Social Security and an increase in the age for Medicare eligibility; and the Obama administration has not only ensured virtually no accountability for the rampant Wall Street fraud that precipitated the 2008 financial crisis, but is actively pressuring New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and others to agree to a woefully inadequate settlement to forever shield banks from the consequences of their pervasive mortgage fraud.
That’s just a fraction of the facts one could list to document the actual factions to which the Democratic Party has devoted itself. If one wants to argue that the GOP is more opposed to progressive economic policies than Democrats, that’s certainly reasonable. If one wants to argue that, on balance, voting for Democrats is more likely to bring about marginally more of those policies than abstaining, I think that, too, is reasonable. But to try to cast the Democratic Party and the Obama administration as the vessel for the values and objectives of the Occupy movement is just dishonest in the extreme: in fact, it’s so extreme that it’s very unlikely to work. Those who believe that further empowerment of the Democratic Party is what is most urgently needed can make their case and should pursue that goal — they should try to generate as much citizen enthusiasm as possible behind them — but they should stop trying to depict and exploit the Occupy movement as an instrument for their agenda.
UPDATE: In cartoon form, History Professor James MacLeod puts it this way:
The position of the Occupy movement in that arrangement is vital.