Electoral Politics and OWS

Listening to an Occupy Wall Street general assembly meeting takes me back to the beginnings of the Green Party in the mid-Hudson region of New York State. The “10 Green Values” we debated and eventually endorsed back then are close to the group values that underlie current occupation movements across the country. They include ecological wisdom, decentralization of economic and political power, respect for diversity, and non-violent resistance. Not only are the values and beliefs similar, but the decision-making process is almost identical. I remember our local group struggling to adapt the Green Party’s way of conducting meetings. No Robert’s Rules of Order here; it was all based on the type of consensus building that we witnessed in Zuccotti Park.


One would think that the Green Party would be similar enough to OWS to get a significant boost from the occupation movement. Certainly, the Greens should receive more of an infusion of energy than Move-On or the Working Families Party, appendages of the Democratic Party that try to channel discontent into votes for the party that controls them.


But the Green Party has a number of problems that makes linking to OWS difficult. Sadly, there are actually two Green Parties in this country, the Greens/Green Party USA (www.green party.org) and the Green Party of the United States (www.gp.org). The former is the original green movement, a progressive effort to expose and confront the ravages of an economic system based on war and capitalism. Called the Green Committees of Correspondence at its inception in 1984, it was organized around local groups setting their own agendas in areas like non-corporate media, alternative institutions, and political awareness. Although some Greens became candidates in local and state elections, there was a general agreement that governmental institutions above the municipal level were hopelessly corrupt and therefore illegitimate. Local groups even determined their own political boundaries, rejecting those imposed by electoral districts.


One Green movement became two with a shift in emphasis to national elections. The Green Party of the United States broke from the original Green Party in 1996 and ran Nader for president. By the 2000 presidential campaign, Nader and the Greens were causing the Democrats some real worry. Nader was an articulate and forceful critic of corporate power whom both major parties wanted to keep off the national stage. An October Rally in Madison Square Garden attracted 15,000 people who heard Nader describe his two corporate-controlled presidential opponents as “drab and dreary” and “Tweedledee and Tweedledum.”


The corporate-orchestrated response to Nader’s challenge remains with us to this day. He was kept out of the debates and then blamed for Bush’s stolen election. All the scorn of the political establishment, with its media echo chamber, was heaped on Nader and the Green Party of the United States. It affected Nader less than the Green Party, which went on to choose David Cobb for its 2004 presidential candidate. Along with Cobb came a campaign strategy of “safe states” which refrained from campaigning in areas critical for a Kerry win. The party had capitulated and Cobb came in sixth in the general election.


None of this dispiriting history has gotten in the way of Greens joining the OWS movement. In fact, many occupiers are themselves Greens, and Green Party locals across the country have given OWS overwhelming support. The Los Angeles City Council, in its historic vote against corporate personhood and call for a Constitutional Amendment, was heavily influenced by OWS and local Green Party organizations. Ralph Nader recently urged protesters to go to the heart of the problem and “encircle the office of each senator and representative back home…”


The history of the Green Party, however, is important to the OWS movement as it transitions from spontaneous encampments to longer range objectives. Should one of these objectives be an involvement in a political system so completely controlled by corporate power? Do third party movements have a chance when the government, both major parties, and the national media are organized against them? Our winner take all system is unlike that of many other developed democracies in that third parties are not given proportional representation. And both major parties use their huge financial advantage to keep third parties off the ballot through endless lawsuits and other legal challenges. Electoral politics may be a game that is hopelessly stacked in favor of the house.


The OWS movement has been successful so far because it hasn’t played by rules set up by the power elites. Its rallies don’t get back on the bus and go home at the end of the day. Its targets are those long considered off limits by more traditional peace groups. OWS also demands so much more than the incremental change favored by older generations of activists. Only a revolution can alter how decisions are made in our entrenched cleptocracy with its endless wars, financial exploitation and environmental destruction.


To be fair, activist groups on the left have been coming to this position for some time. Banner drops in DC organized by the Veterans for Peace have included brief periods of occupation. The massive civil disobedience at the White House in December 2010 and March 2011 involved a large spectrum of progressive organizations including Code Pink, the War Resisters League, the Answer Coalition, and many more. Individuals belonging to these groups and others had also been planning the October 2011 occupation of Freedom Plaza in DC months before Wall Street protesters decided to set up camp in Zuccotti Park. Most of the established left in this country had already committed themselves and their organizations to direct action rather than electoral participation.


There is no doubt that this transformation of the established left has influenced the OWS movement. More significant, however, have been the times we are living in. The corporations with their immense power have become predatory in a way we haven’t seen in generations. There is no quarter to be given working people or the environment; all will be ravaged for the malignant greed of the very few.  


Fred Nagel is a veteran, a filmmaker, and a political activist. He also hosts a show on Vassar College Radio (classwars.org).