As long as there has been a thing called Occupy Wall Street, there have been people who’ve suggested it should become the left’s version of the Tea Party. Josh Harkinson’s piece is a notable contribution to the conversation because it comes after eight months of in-depth reporting on the movement. Harkinson, like Jennifer Granholm, suggests that Occupy should recruit and run candidates, so the left has champions in Congress and can credibly threaten less ideologically aligned Democrats. According to this logic, it doesn’t matter if Occupy does this itself or essentially outsources the job to our progressive allies — the point is to find ways to elect more good Democrats.
The idea of a progressive Tea Party was totally my jam before Occupy started. Like Harkinson, I didn’t see how the left could create real change in America without taking control of the Democratic Party. Now I think it’s important to recognize that the problems we face as a country can’t be solved by electing more Democrats, or even by electing more good Democrats. A progressive Tea Party would be a welcome addition, but it wouldn’t be nearly enough to create the kind of change we need.
If Occupy tried to start a left Tea Party, we would be following in the footsteps of several progressive movement efforts that came up short. Howard Dean’s presidential campaign turned into Democracy for America to reclaim the «Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,» the Progressive Change Campaign Committee explicitly references the DCCC, and Rebuild the Dream originally billed itself as the progressive Tea Party. I have worked for each of these organizations and have lots of respect for their work. But unfortunately, none of these projects, despite their many successes, have managed to mount a serious national effort to take out bad Democrats and replace them with good ones. They are constrained by the lack of a grassroots base in many congressional districts and big donors reluctance to fund challenges to Democrats. Even big, collaborative efforts to take out bad Democrats have a relatively poor record (See Sheyman, Ilya; Halter, Bill; or Lamont, Ned).
Occupy is less well suited than the Progressive movement to overcome these challenges. Most occupiers I know aren’t interesting in learning how to raise money, knock on doors, or run campaigns. Starting a progressive Tea Party is a completely legitimate, useful goal — but it’s something for the progressive institutions to take on. New York state and city provide a good model for how this can work harmoniously: the Working Families Party is a unified progressive block within the Democratic party. They support Occupy and we support them on the issues. Together, we won a huge, unexpected victory for the millionaires tax.
Despite the hard work of our progressive allies, the unfortunate reality is that our political system as presently constructed is simply incapable of responding to people’s needs. The election of the most progressive Democratic nominee of the past 30 years and a Democratic super majority in Congress resulted in relatively little change in American political economy, even during a time of massive economic crisis. The tepid response showed our political system was designed to serve the whims of the market, and no politician has the power to do much about it.
My generation doesn’t put all, or even most, of the blame for this state of affairs on President Obama. We don’t hate the player, so much as we hate the game. I believe Democrats are better than Republicans, because Democrats care more about the lives of gays, women, and people of color. I also believe everyone should all vote, because not voting would hurt people that I care about. That being said, we won’t just win by getting new players — we need to change the game. The system is fundamentally incapable of healing itself.