Earlier this year, when I spent time in Dewey Square, the colorful campsite of the Boston Occupy movement, I heard Occupiers argue whether they should work to re-elect President Barack Obama. This debate continues among thousands of other activists, from the peace to the climate movements, with big implications for both the movements and the election itself.
The Occupy activists are in a new phase. No longer grabbing headlines by occupying public spaces such as Dewey Square or Wall Street, they have dispersed to work with communities and unions on issues like unemployment, home foreclosures and student debt.
The members of the now-fragmented social justice movement will help both themselves and the country if they coalesce this fall to “Occupy the Election.”
Whether to get involved in elections is an age-old question within social justice groups. Progressives frequently get snared in a seductive “election trap,” fighting for the mainstream party they find more palatable than the alternative – usually the Democrats – but whose policies they often oppose. How does a peace activist today support a president who is expanding drone warfare? How does a fair-housing activist support a president who goes easy on the big mortgage companies and does little to help homeowners who are underwater?
Yet despite the corporate stranglehold on both political parties, Occupy and other progressives should work hard to help re-elect President Obama. Why? The haunting specter of the most reactionary Republican Party since World War II might otherwise get control of the American government.
This is not your grandfather’s Grand Old Party. Today’s GOP would boot out presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, based on their support of the New Deal framework. Today’s GOP is funded by extreme right-wing billionaires, such as oil and gas magnates David and Charles Koch (with personal wealth together of $50 billion in 2012, second in the U.S. only to Bill Gates, according to the Forbes 400), who want to destroy big-business regulation as well as the liberal “welfare state.” The Romney and Ryan budgets resurrect the models of the extreme anti-labor, pro-big-business Republicans of the 1920s and the robber baron Republicans of the 1890s.
Re-electing President Obama to stop this right-wing agenda is reason enough to get involved. But there is a more positive reason as well: Organizing against Mitt Romney is a great movement opportunity. Romney personifies the “1 percent” made famous by Occupy, and his own remarks highlight the injustice of the current economic system and the urgent need for systemic change. For example:
“I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more.”
Romney may be telling the truth, but that’s the point. The legal tax code in this country is an obscene gift to the wealthy. A recent study by the Tax Justice Network found that between $21 and $32 trillion is being parked legally in offshore tax havens. As billionaire Warren Buffett has famously said of the American tax structure, it’s class warfare – and the rich have won. Romney’s tax biography – and his stance on the issue – only helps highlight that point.
“I’m not concerned about the very poor.”
Worth at least $250 million, Romney is perhaps the richest American ever to run for president. Occupiers can point to him as a personification of extreme inequality – one who is not only insensitive and immoral, but undermining both the economy and society at large.
“I did it myself.”
Romney says the rich made it on their own by hitting a home run – and thus deserve their wealth. In fact, like most of the wealthiest Americans, Romney was born on third base, into a wealthy family and a life of privilege. It’s an inconvenient truth – but one that activists can use to their advantage.
In addition, Romney unwittingly highlights his company, Bain Capital, as a corporate “poster boy” for outsourcing. Disappearing jobs may be the single most important election issue, but they are also the Achilles heel of U.S. capitalism. Romney is a gift for activists seeking an intense national conversation about the perils of corporate globalization and capitalism itself.
Diving into the fray this fall carries risks, but Occupy and other social justice movements can help themselves by uniting around a common cause. If they do, rather than watering their message down, they will advance their core mission of promoting economic democracy.
If Occupiers help Obama win, the country will be better off, not least because the movements will become a more powerful force for transformation. And my obsessive poll-gazing tells me that the odds look pretty good if the activists do indeed overcome the Republican voter-suppression machine and help get their main constituencies ‒ the poor, minorities, working women and young people ‒ to vote.