Keeping Democrats on the Hook


“I think it’s dangerous, this class warfare”

— Mitt Romney on OWS, Oct. 4, 2011

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) represents a nationwide movement-in-the-making that is independent of the two-Party duopoly. Both the movement’s staying power and its effectiveness depend crucially on this independence. The established powers are fully aware of the dangers implicit in a truly popular democratic, i.e. independent of the two Parties, movement. It is therefore on our agenda to beware of colonization by the powers that be. No one worries about Republican infiltration. It is the Democrats who have the most to lose by OWS. We can be certain that the Party’s operatives will attempt to incorporate the movement into an agenda that does not challenge the legitimacy of the Democratic Party by, for example, underscoring Obama’s whole-hog subservience to Wall Street, and the Party leadership’s acquiescence to the president’s across-the-board betrayal of his once enthusiastic acolytes.

MoveOn has already moved in. An effective Fifth Column can waste no time. The organization responded immediately to OWS’s much publicized presence and broad appeal  -polls show most Americans sympathetic to OWS- by forming local groups across the country and never identifying with the already existing OWS, which is at this point no more than the unorganized aggregation of its local assemblages. So far OWS has no clear agenda, no pointed set of demands, nor a clear notion of the sanctions an effective movement would impose if whatever demands are ignored.  These are the circumstances we expect a savvy mole to exploit.

MoveOn is a force to be reckoned with. It has developed a sizeable following and an effective communications network. Its principal bad guys are the Republicans; nowhere in its message do we find a statement of preconditions for electoral support of Democratic candidates. The premises implicit in MoveOn’s stance are three: the exclusive objective of big politics is to win elections, no one but a Republican or a Democrat stands a chance of winning a presidential election, and the Republican will always be worse than the Democrat. From these (defective) premises the conclusion does indeed follow that supporting Democrats goes without saying. In fact, it follows that we need not know anything more about a Democratic platform than that the Republican will be worse. MoveOn has bought a subscription to Democratic politics with an obligatory renewal clause.

The organization is in effect an arm of the Democratic Party. It creates a political space in which activists who might otherwise be building a Left political alternative to the Democrats can be seduced to remain in the Party. Accomplishing this goal has never been more urgent to the Democrats than it is now. Disaffection with Obama and the Party is rampant in liberal circles. But MoveOn’s meetings will never conclude that the Democrats’ performance demonstrates that working within the Party will not move us away from Uncle Sam’s multiple wars or toward national health care and a reversal of the tendency toward widening inequality.

Is it possible that deindustrialized, financialized American capitalism is incapable of delivering on the New Deal and Great Society promises that define postwar liberalism, much less on the demands of genuine Left egalitarianism? Could it be that the liberal-conservative, Republican-Democrat alternatives are now politically obsolete? Surely the historical moment has arrived when these questions are up for serious consideration. OWS could in principle address these issues by virtue of its independence of the Parties. MoveOn will not touch them.

The Democratic Party will brook no independent political tendencies. It will marshall its forces on whatever scale necessary to discredit and defeat perceived Left challenges. The Howard Dean campaign of 2003-2004 is a paradigm illustration of the lengths to which the Party will go squelch independent tendencies out of step with the Party consensus.

Dean’s initial issues were health care and fiscal responsibility, but disenchanted Democrats siezed upon his opposition to the Iraq war as their principal rallying point around his campaign.  Dean quickly appropriated the momentum of growing anti-war sentiment and took it online with great success. “We fell into this by accident,” Dean averred later. “I wish I could tell you we were smart enough to figure this out. But the community taught us. They seized the initiative through Meetup. They built our organization for us before we had an organization.”

An independent grass roots movement-in-the-making had appropriated Dean’s campaign. Its impressive gains were acknowledged by the Washington Post, which reported in 2003 that “His rivals grudgingly concede that Dean … has clearly tapped into something. He is attracting the largest crowds of the nine Democratic contenders… His supporters arguably are the most intense for this early in the process, tens of thousands of them self-organizing in about 300 cities once a month.” By September 2003 Dean was the leading fundraiser among the Democratic aspirants. The organizer of an earlier Republican online effort, the e.GOP Project, admitted that Dean’s base was “ahead in the game. . . . Left of center organizations are showing more energy, innovation and more strength in numbers.”

The effectiveness of Dean’s grass roots base is all the more impressive given his support for NAFTA, Medicare cuts, and his identification with the politics of the reactionary Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), whose operatives set out to defeat the disloyal upstart early in his campaign. Especially threatening to mainstream Democrats were the findings of polls showing most Americans in synch with Dean’s opposition to the war and therefore out of step with the Party leadership, which was solidly in the Clinton, New Democrat camp. Along with fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee, the DLC began running a series of ads attacking front-runner Dean for his position on NAFTA and Medicare, and for his NRA support. There was of course no mention of Clinton’s championing of NAFTA, nor of his pre-Lewinsky plans with Newt Gingrich to initiate the privatization of Social Security.

The major media were happy to jump onto the Democratic establishment’s attacks. They had started going after him the minute he made a campaign issue of breaking up the corporate media monoplies. Their coup de grace was the invention of “the scream”, Dean’s shout of exuberance intended to cheer up his supporters at a post-caucus rally after the Iowa primaries.

For a time after the Iowa caucus the airways were running the scream non-stop, encouraging the perception of Dean as a crazed nutcase. In context Dean’s shout was all of a piece with the crowd’s yelling and hollering. The television crews recorded the event by plugging into an audio source picking up Dean’s microphone, not the sound of the room. The cameras zeroed in on a tight shot of the candidate; the rest of the room was unseen. The media never provided the wide-angle visual-auditory shot until after the desired impression had been foisted upon viewers. As CBS news online put it after the damage had been done, “In a nutshell, you are not seeing that Dean’s speech fit the tone of the room.” Here we see the unsurprising dovetailing of the politics of both the media and the Party.

Equally unsurprising was Dean’s joining forces after his defeat with the very scoundrels who had worked so hard to bring him down. Mission accomplished: Dean was effectively reabsorbed into Democratic business as usual. The Party remained unchallenged from the Left.

OWS is comparable to the independent grass roots movement-in-the-making that put Dean’s campaign on the political map. But it has identified with no mainstream political figure. There is no individual personality to function as a whipping boy to discredit the entire movement. OWS itself will surely be the target of a sustained Party attempt either to discredit it altogether by character assassination or to keep it within the Democrats’ ambit by, for example, incorporating it into MoveOn. The movement will face the choice whether to remain independent of Democratic control or to become either an appendage of MoveOn or a marginalized grouping in the wake of MoveOn’s growing organizational effectiveness. Considerable political acumen is called for. How shall OWS retain its integrity while incorporating into its political program, such as it is, a determination to resist the sirens of MoveOn or any other arm of the Democrats? This is not a rhetorical question; I’m really asking.

I’ve belatedly made myself part of OWS. No one in the movement knows exactly where it is going. How could it be otherwise, given the number of disillusioned, angry and frustrated citizens motivated by a broad range of scandals – foreclosure, bankruptcy, a health care catastrophe, loss of the bulk of retirement savings, unbearable student debt and job loss? OWS does perceive all this as directly related to the economic crisis, the record inequality currently afflicting the citizenry, and the administration’s exclusive concern with protecting the cynical and lawless financial plutocracy. The gaping disconnect between Obama’s promises and his real-world performance has produced a profound sense of betrayal. No wonder that many are impelled to express in concert some form of resistance.

I stumbled onto MoveOn’s organization here in Tacoma when I misread an announcement and ended up not at an OWS meeting but at MoveOn’s initial gathering. The people were seated, much like an audience, in front of a table where the two MoveOn representatives were signing people up. One of the reps was on the staff of Washington Democratic Representative Adam Smith (sic).

The MoveOn representatives were in charge. They announced that the group would be divided into seven smaller discussion groups. The two reps instructed the groups that they had twenty minutes to come up with a brief list of concerns. After this, a representative from each group would state his/her group’s main issues. These would be written out by one of the MoveOn reps and displayed for all to see. From these combined lists the group would select the issues to adopt as its own. It’s worth mentioning that while there were no students present, five of the seven groups listed the student debt burden as among their priorities.

When it came to our group’s list, one of us, a plumber, stated our three concerns: should we adopt an overarching slogan, like Ban Derivatives Trading or Reinstate Glass-Steagall (everyone in my group, composed of retirees, wage earners and small businessmen, knew what Glass-Steagal was), to write down or forgive entirely student debt, and whether our group should maintain its independence of the two Parties.  The third concern was not displayed by the rep.

Another member of our group asked why the independence concern was not acknowledged, and by the way, why should we not join the OWS people who were at this moment occupying a park on Tacoma’s main drag. Is there any reason why we should not be united? The rep replied that OWS and “our” group were “two different organizations.” But why, another asked, should that make any difference to an issue on which the two organizations are in accord. “Well,” replied the rep, “there are many different unions aren’t there? It’s the same thing.” “Sure,” I chimed in, “but a company union is not really a union.” End of discussion, the reps decided.

At the time of that meeting, the majority of Democrats on the congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, the “supercommittee” whose principal agenda is to recommend the largest cuts in social spending they think they can get away with, had not yet announced its plan. Their announcement at the end of October turns out to be well to the right of the recommendations of the first incarnation of the deficit reduction committee, the National Commission On Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Obama appointed as co-chairs of that bipartisan team the fiscal conservatives and privatizers Erskine Bowles, at the time a director of Morgan Stanley, and retired Republican Wyoming senator Alan Simpson. Most of the remaining committee were ideological clones of the co-chairs; the Commission was a stacked deck. The day before his appointment Bowles said to The New York Times “There isn’t a single sitting member of Congress – not one – that doesn’t know exactly where we’re headed.” The same day, Simpson remarked to the Washington Post “How did we get to a point in America where you get to a certain age in life, regardless of net worth or income, and you’re ‘entitled’? The word itself is killing us.” (Feb. 17, 2010)

The Bowles-Simpson proposed cuts in social spending were as expected: $383 billion from Medicare and Medicaid. But the current Joint Select Committee Democratic majority beats that by $92billon; they’d slash a total of $475 billion. And they recommend about $850 billion less in revenue increases than Bowles-Simpson. The current Democratic plan features greater Medicare beneficiary cuts ($200 billion)than B-S and is eight times the level of Medicare beneficiary cuts recommended in Obama’s September 19 budget plan. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that “Since half of Medicare beneficiaries have incomes below about $21,000, it would be extremely difficult to secure $200 billion in savings from increased Medicare beneficiary charges without requiring significantly larger out-of-pocket payments by beneficiaries with incomes as low as $12,000 or $15,000.”

It is not enough to point out with due indignation that, in the words of an October 31 statement from the AFL-CIO, “Republicans and Democrats on the federal deficit “Super Committee” have called for big cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says the AFL-CIO stands firm against cuts to these essential middle-class programs.” Of course both Republicans and Democrats want a reduction in the social wage, but the significance of the present Democratic stand is its more draconian recommendations relative to the predetermined reactionary position of B-S. Nor are we persuaded by our MoveOn liberals’ rejoinder that the Republicans dismiss the Democrats’ plan and demand even greater cuts.  So what? Whatever the Democrats put forward, however poisonous it may be, the Republicans will always, on principle, demand something worse. Piling invective on the Republicans is not unworthy, but in this context it’s a distraction.

Keeping the Democrats on the hook should be implicit in whatever pointed demands OWS might come up with. That won’t happen if MoveOn has its way.

Alan Nasser is Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He can be reached

Exclusively in the new print issue of CounterPunch


One of the Greatest Descriptions of Farm Work Ever Written— Don’t miss Frank Bardacke’s marvelous account from the California fields. ALSO Linn Washington Jr. on the “Black Backlash Against Obama.”


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