The Occupy Movement has been the first major grassroots progressive movement in the United States in decades. But, at its core, the appeal of the Occupy Wall Street movement has been that it is politically unaffiliated, and that lack of structure, or, more precisely, that lack of structural purpose, has also been its undoing. Occupy Wall Street has been more successfully expressive of political discontent than persuasive about progressive remedies to that discontent mainly because persuasion requires objectives that can be targeted, if not always achieved.
Many Millennials seem to have an aversion to conventional politics, but if they ultimately want to build a third political party that is more truly progressive than the Democratic party has become, the quickest route to accomplishing that goal may be to build a movement within the Democratic party that can either re-assume control of the party or that can draw away enough resources, candidates, and voters that it renders what remains of the Democratic party inconsequential.
If one looks at the new parties in American political history that have succeeded on the national level, they have almost always emerged from existing parties. Conversely, the parties that have never achieved enough political mass to have a national impact have typically tried to organize themselves independently and to create their own structure from scratch.
The Tea Party movement has demonstrated how a base movement can challenge the positions that the monied interests in a major party would prefer to promote. But the Tea Party has two inherent and severe limitations: (1) it appeals largely to ingrained, ignorant biases and does not offer a positive platform that emphasizes any sort of social and material progress; and (2) this bottom-feeding approach to electoral politics has attracted not only lunatic-fringe voters but lunatic-fringe candidates who have no appeal beyond the Tea Party’s most radicalized reactionary base.
In some ways, the radically progressive wing of the Democratic party that disastrously got its way with the nomination of George McGovern in 1972 suffered from a combination of the salient limitations of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Tea Party. The progressives who came out of the radical movements of the 1960s exceeded their political reach with McGovern’s nomination: that is, in securing his nomination, they achieved something beyond their actual political power and influence. They simply had not infiltrated the Democratic party at the local and state levels thoroughly enough to make McGovern’s election anything close to a reasonable possibility. Worse, during the nomination process, they had alienated organized labor, and the disengagement of the political apparatus that organized labor had typically provided on the local and state levels, in combination with the defection of conservative Southern Democrats following the Civil Rights legislation passed under Johnson, led directly to the drubbing that McGovern received. The scope of the progressive overreach in the 1972 election can be put in perspective if one considers that the coalition that secured the nomination for McGovern did not attain enough political mass to elect a president until Barack Obama ran in 2008.
The people who finance political parties and political campaigns will often embrace idealists and sometimes support slick extremists, but they quickly abandon amateurs. For that reason, far fewer Tea Party candidates are posing serious primary challenges to incumbents in 2014 than in 2010 or 2012. Although the progressive movement of the 1970s was the opposite end of the political spectrum from the Tea Party today, it suffered from the same sort of broader perception of its radicalism. If the Tea Party seems rancidly and anachronistically opposed to any sort of social, cultural, or political change, the progressives in the 1970s were all too easy to caricature as almost anarchistic opponents of the status quo. Though it may be deemed as blasphemy by the Far Right, it is not at all an exaggeration to assert that Ronald Reagan was elected as much for what he did not represent as for what he did represent. The so-called “Reagan Democrats” included a large number of working-class Whites in the Northeast and Midwest, as well as in the South, who felt that the progressivism of the 1960s and 1970s had become an extremist movement and had caused things to change too much and too fast. They weren’t necessarily embracing the ideology of the Far Right as they were rejecting the ideology of the Far Left. It is worth noting, too, that, despite the social upheaval and the political divisions caused by the Vietnam War, the 1960s and early 1970s were a period of general economic prosperity. It was easier for the general population—the middle-class—to accept progressive radicalism then than it was during the extended and severe economic downturn of the late 1970s and early 1980s, in which the erosion of the industrial workforce began to accelerate. So, an inversion of this pattern has occurred with the Tea Party: that is, they had more appeal when the country was experiencing a terrible economic crisis in the Great Recession, but their appeal has diminished as the economic conditions have very gradually improved.
In several Ohio cities, progressives have become very actively engaged in the political process at the grassroots level. In some cases, they are running as independent labor candidates. In fact, in Lorain, which is located in one of the most heavily unionized regions of the state, those candidates received much electoral support and now constitute the majority on the city council. In contrast, in Hamilton County, progressives are currently running in large numbers to become party precinct executives, or voting members of the Democratic party’s central committee in the county. These are truly grassroots positions, and for a long while they have been regarded as anachronistic carryovers from a time, before television, when both major parties had much more extensive, formal representation at the neighborhood level. In fact, the precinct positions now carry so little prestige and influence that typically very few of the seats have been contested and many have remained unfilled. But after experiencing some success in advocating for several floundering countywide initiatives, progressives are stepping into the vacuum at the precinct level and exerting a broadening, bottom-up influence on the Democratic party in the county.
Both approaches to expanding the progressive influence on Ohio politics are encouraging. But, although the success of the independent labor candidates has garnered more attention, I think that what is occurring in Hamilton County may be more noteworthy in the longer term—that it may provide a more sustainable, longer-term model for insuring that progressive issues receive more than lip service at both the local and the state levels.