Thursday, October 27, 2011

Occupy the Ballot Box

I have many excuses for failing to appear at Zuccotti Park. Work and family preoccupy my time. Well into middle age, I simply do not feel hip enough to join the drum circle. Rank laziness is, if I am completely honest, a factor.

My guilt at this lapse is genuine. As income disparity grows, the relentlessly widening chasm between the wealthiest segment of our society and everyone else threatens the very foundation of our Republic. The issues being raised by the OWS protesters are vitally urgent, the crisis of this generation. Yet, all excuses aside, my aloofness reflects a genuine ambivalence.

I can not summon a robust motivation to join the protests because I am hounded by a persistent question: how many of the protesters voted in the last election? This is, I know, a heavily freighted question. The old adage warning us not to assume is well taken, and I might well be surprised by the empirical answer to my query. But I can not shake the doubts my question raises.

If many of the constituencies popularly associated with OWS (I am thinking especially of the young) had showed up at the ballot box in 2010 in the same numbers as 2008, our political landscape would be radically different right now. Real progress would have been made on some of the issues most central to the OWS protest- the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans would almost certainly already have been repealed, giving us a start toward redressing the crisis of income inequality.

In that climate, if a Democratically-controlled Congress continued to show reticence to address the concerns of the 99%, a broad-based popular movement like the one we are seeing now could have exerted real pressure to influence the legislative agenda. Alternatively, if the OWS protests had begun before the 2010 race, perhaps they could have mobilized groups that were absent from that electoral contest. It is in this respect of timing that the OWS movement is most distinct from the Tea Party. Though both groups are motivated by similar senses of anger and disaffection, the Tea Party translated that political energy into real effects at the ballot box.

At the moment, it is difficult to imagine OWS having that kind of impact. The Republican House will not be moved one iota from its commitment to obstructionism. Until the legislative logjam is broken, little can be accomplished by way of redressing the widening inequalities of American society. With every passing electoral cycle, the problem becomes more intractable. As wealth shifts ever-upward, the forces of regression acquire new power to entrench and institutionalize the dysfunctional status quo.

The way back from this precipice, however, can not be found in the complete absence of our established political institutions. Money may have corrupted politics to an unprecedented degree, but government action remains the greatest lever for change. The passion and cause of the OWS protesters are admirable, but their means will not attain their goals unless and until they can be translated into electoral impact. All depends on the vote.

1 comment:

David Hochheiser said...

One thing that the conservatives seem to be better at than others is voting for whomever is closest to their interests instead of merely for who appears to be their ideal. The democratic base let the congressional vote slip away because they weren't getting everything they wanted. I understand wanting, wishing, and hoping for idealistic conditions, but I'm as inclined to show up and vote against what I fear, loathe and know is the wrong direction as I am to show up for my perfect candidate, who has never appeared. Perhaps OWS will show people that politics and culture are processes and that "we" need to continue to apply pressure if the pendulum is to swing.