In my first OWS post I stated that the OWS movement is truly non-partisan. Frank Rich, among many other cultural commentators has noted that both OWS and the Tea Party emerged out of frustration with the status quo in government today. Tea Partiers and Occupants share a belief that politicians have gone too far in putting corporate interests ahead of the interests of the people who elected them.
But the big difference between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street (yeah, yeah, I know there are other differences as well) is that the Occupants have no intention of mounting a candidate for office.
And why would they? Unlike the Tea Partiers, who can point with disgust at the Democratic President at the helm of the power structure and believe that they could do better, the Occupants actually won the last Presidential election.
I remember the visceral euphoria you could feel among young people in NYC immediately after the 2008 Obama election. I was at a Decemberists concert at Terminal 5 the night after that election. The crowd was electric with thousands of 20- and 30-somethings chanting and cheering and passing around Obama cutouts. They had such hope, such joy in having had their voices heard, at having prevailed in the election.
But three years later, the crowd at Zuccotti Park looks a lot like the crowd at that Decemberists concert (though in fairness, OWS is a more diverse crowd, in terms of age and race, than the Decemberists crowd), but they are completely disillusioned. They won and life still stinks.
They know that backing another candidate in the traditional system will yield similar results. Whether on the Right or on the Left, politicians in America are so indebted to the corporate interests that both fund their campaigns and lobby incessantly, that the voice of the people no longer matters in government.
This is probably the single most important conversation to be having out of Occupy Wall Street. The corporate money that has funded traditional Republican and Democratic campaigns distorts our democracy in practice. In order to keep the money rolling in, viable candidates (those who have the funding to run a successful campaign) necessarily must put their corporate benefactors ahead of the citizens who, ostensibly, elect them.
America has been discussing campaign finance reform since the 1860s. But the system has remained more or less the same, with tweaks: Candidates raise as much money as they possibly can from whatever sources they can. Historically reforms have included changes to rules around disclosures and limits on campaign contributions.
However, this is not how elections are funded in much of the free world. In other democracies, elections are much shorter than they are in the U.S., campaigns are publicly funded, donations are anonymous, and funds are distributed equally among candidates for campaigning, in an attempt to level the playing field and allow for truly “free” speech. (You can read summaries of some other campaign finance systems on this Library of Congress website.)
Many traditional “Democrats” feel let down by the Democratic Party; just as many “Republicans” feel that they are no longer represented by their traditional party. But independent and third-party candidates don’t have the muscle and funds to compete effectively in the current campaign environment.
One of supporters of OWS who has commented here before mentioned that he voted for Ralph Nader in the last Presidential election, because he truly wanted to vote for change. But most people I know put their votes behind a traditional Democratic or Republican candidate so as not to “waste” their vote.
True campaign finance reform may be the impossible dream in America. After all, the reform would have to come from a Congress deeply invested in the existing system. For all our belief in progress and positive change, are we a country so bound to tradition that we are unwilling to walk away from a tradition that is no longer serving the original ideals our country was founded upon?
For real change to even begin to happen on an institutional level, voters of the Left and Right would have to work together outside of ideology, in the spirit of radical pragmatism, towards an unprecedented landslide referendum that couldn’t be ignored in the halls of existing big government. What is the likelihood of that happening?