Occupy the Progressive Movement

It was during the fifth or sixth major argument within the netroots in 2011 about the Obama Administration that the first protestors attempted to Occupy Wall Street in mid-September. Within days the talk of primary challenges, donor strikes, and third parties had vanished as the eyes of the progressive movement turned toward NYC. As protestors across the country took up the cause and the practices of Occupy Wall Street, setting up tents in cities large and small and bringing the message of the 99% to the masses, many progressive activists and organizations stopped what they were doing and gravitated to the new movement springing up in the streets.

Occupy Philadelphia
Occupy Philadelphia by Craig Fineburg

This was a moment many of us had long been waiting for. 2011 had seen mass street protests across the globe against the global economic system and the political systems that enabled the 1% to rob us blind. But with the localized exception of the Wisconsin protests, that street movement had not yet come to America.

Throughout 2011 progressives tried to stoke that flame. Some, like 350.org, came very close, turning out thousands at the White House in late summer to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. Others like Van Jones recognized the need for a new kind of mass politics to challenge the 1%, launching Rebuild the Dream in late June.

America was a tinder-dry land of California brush awaiting a spark – and the hot winds were already blowing. But it took the anarchist activists of OWS to actually get things started in the streets. Almost immediately the public conversation around economic policy was changed, as it finally became acceptable for everyone to admit what we already knew: our nation, our households, and our economy had been robbed blind by the wealthy elite, and it was time to do something about it.

The progressive movement hasn’t been the same since. That movement, born around 2003 out of deep anger at the Democratic Party’s enthusiastic embrace of the Bush Administration’s warmongering policies as well as growing unease about the direction of the nation’s economy, had by 2011 started to spin its wheels. The arguments over Obama were, in large part, an argument about the future of the movement.

A lot of work had been done since 2003 to build a functioning left in the United States. It began online, but quickly moved offline. The Dean campaign was one early example. By 2006 the movement was in full flower, with the first national convention (then called “YearlyKos”) held amidst a national political campaign to retake Congress from the Republicans. Progressive activists provided the money and the ground troops to wrest control of both the House and Senate back from the right.

Two years later, the Obama campaign seemed to vindicate the movement. Obama’s campaign style was in the new progressive mold. It was “people-powered.” It challenged the establishment Democratic Party with an inspirational message of hope and change. It perfected the Internet-based organizing strategies the netroots had pioneered. It mobilized the masses and generated higher turnout than had been seen in years.

But by 2009, it became clear that nothing had really changed. Obama immediately brought on board all the old Clinton Administration hands and showed his desire to govern as if the 1990s had never ended. Obama began rapidly abandoning the agenda he championed in 2008 and it became clear to progressives that their hopes for change were going to be dashed. The movement began to sputter. Momentum from 2006 and 2008 wasn’t sustained and as the right became more energized, progressives and Democrats more broadly went down to defeat (with California being an important exception) in 2010.

This was the landscape onto which Occupy Wall Street burst in September and October of 2011. What OWS did was expose the failure of a core assumption of the progressive movement dating back to 2003 – that if the movement focused on winning elections, change would follow. The progressive movement was always more diverse than that, and had interesting cultural forms, intellectual developments, and a clear desire to do mass organizing. But since at least 2004 electoral organizing had been the top focus of the movement.

Progressives eagerly embraced Occupy Wall Street because it suggested a way out of the blind alley of an overfocus on winning elections. This weekend’s Netroots New York conference bore little resemblance to previous Netroots conferences, whether state or national, in that it was dominated by discussion of the Occupy movement. It’s a telling example of how many progressives themselves had lost faith in their movement’s ability to produce change.

It was time for a correction anyway. What we have learned is that winning elections isn’t on its own enough to produce change. What’s needed is a clear policy agenda and a strong external movement that can help progressives in power implement that agenda – and stop others in power from implementing a bad one. That requires a movement in which electoral organizing is just one piece. In other words, the progressive movement needs to grow not only in numbers but in the diversity of what it does.

That isn’t what drives most Occupiers, however. Occupy is also a rebuke of organized politics. They’re in the streets because they believe it’s the only way change can be produced. What it has revealed is that distrust of government is now rampant on the left as well as the right. To most Occupiers, government is the enemy. And their confrontations with local governments showed this. Even though the vast majority of local electeds in the big cities are sympathetic to the Occupy movement and are no friend to the 1% (with Bloomberg being a notable exception), Occupy’s choice of tactics reflected their belief that anyone in government was either incapable of helping or was determined to break the protest. And Occupy has brought a new group of people into political activism. New voices are popping up online, new leaders are emerging, and they are much less interested in the more incremental changes that the progressive movement had unfortunately become accustomed to accepting.

Occupiers are openly advocating revolutionary change from the streets. But here is where I think the progressive movement’s love affair with OWS should find its limits. Occupy alone won’t produce the changes we need in this country. By focusing on physical occupation of public space, they’ve muddled their early message and have alienated potential allies. On the other hand, they have succeeded in kicking a door open. The public wants action on inequality and wants to go after the 1%. Progressives should walk through the door that Occupy opened – and they should be willing to work with anyone, Occupiers or not, who are interested in providing the leadership that is needed to make lasting change happen.

The goal of progressives should be to build a broader, long-term, mass movement to achieve a democratic economy, an equal society, and a peaceful planet. Taking to the streets is a tactic to help get us toward that goal. But it is those who are best organized who will prevail even if street action leads to major political change.

That is the key lesson of history. In February 1917 a mass movement took to the streets of the Russian Empire and overthrew the tsar. But because they were the best organized, it was the Bolsheviks who ultimately prevailed, even though most Russians seemed to prefer a more moderate and democratic outcome. In February 1979 a mass movement that had been in the streets of Iran for nearly a year finally toppled the shah. Many of the leaders of that movement wanted Iran to become a western-style liberal democracy. What they got was the Islamic Republic, because the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers were by far the best organized group in the country.

In February 2011 a mass movement took to the streets of Egypt and overthrew Hosni Mubarak. But because they were the best organized, it was the Muslim Brotherhood that won the fall elections and is now poised to govern Egypt. The people of Tahrir Square are struggling to maintain their vision of the revolution and are finding that taking to the streets is a tactic that can work at times, but isn’t enough to produce long-term change. If it were, the occupations of Syntagma Square would have stopped Greece from imploding on austerity, and would have brought down the neo-Thatcherism of the Cameron-Clegg government in the UK.

Progressives were not wrong to care about winning elections and making sure the right people were in government. That matters a great deal. Who controls the levers of government, whose ideas prevail in a campaign, which ballot initiatives win and lose, which budgets get cut and which budgets get increased – all of these things are crucially important. And ultimately, if we are going to take our money back from the 1%, it’s going to require governmental action.

What progressives were wrong to do was to make electoral organizing such a central focus of their work, almost to the exclusion of everything else. The movement needs to broaden. The problem with focusing so much on Occupy is that it too is narrow. It’s the overture to the greater opera of change that is beginning. It won’t produce change on its own either.

Our government needs renewal. Our institutions need to be rebuilt. Our economy needs to be made democratic. Our culture and our society need to become much less barbaric and atomized and instead become much more loving and collaborative.

And we have to build that while also fending off the 1%’s move toward a neofeudal society, where we all become serfs, dependent on large corporations that have merged seamlessly with a government that has abrogated most of our basic rights. Defeating that requires not just direct action. It also requires us to have a clear and compelling alternative. Right now we don’t have that. And we don’t have a broad enough movement to push it forward even if we did.

Some progressive organizations have learned the lesson well. In California, a group of progressive organizations have come together to support a ballot initiative that would reverse austerity that has crippled education and health care services by taxing millionaires. (Note: I worked for one of these organizations, Courage Campaign, from 2007 to 2010.) This proposal had been in the works before Occupy Wall Street began, but they are walking through the door that OWS kicked open. Their polling shows their measure is very popular, with 67% voters saying they would support it.

It’s true that this initiative alone won’t fix all of California’s problems. It’s one piece of a much broader strategy to produce change. But that’s the point. If it passed it would put into action a key piece of the Occupy agenda – tax the rich to save our schools and services.

Government isn’t working right now. But neither is it going away. We still need to pass good initiatives, and elect good progressives like Darcy Burner, and work to get policies changed. What we now know is that those things on their own are still necessary but are also not sufficient to produce a better world. Those need to be part of a much bigger movement that is able to create cultural products, social values, and new ways of doing work that match our deepest values of democracy, collaboration, and care for everyone.

And there will be times where we have to go around the system to get there. Taking to the streets has its place. But even that will only be effective if it’s tied to a bigger agenda and to organizing that ensures the left prevails if and when an historic moment of change arrives.

There’s no right answer and no wrong answer. We haven’t figured out how to stop neofeudalism and build a better society. Progressives should let a thousand flowers bloom. What we now know is that we can’t focus on any one flower and neglect the field as a whole.

Occupy Wall Street is showing the progressive movement it’s time to mature. This decade should be, and must be, our decade. The crisis is growing worse, not better, and it is up to us to ensure that when it passes, we come out the other side with a sustainable, lasting social democracy that meets everyone’s needs in a society built on love and collaboration rather than hatred and competition. That only happens if we commit ourselves to lasting organizing, to take back our government (whether on the inside or outside) in order to rebuild it as a properly functioning tool of the people, and not as a tool of the 1%.

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12 Responses to Occupy the Progressive Movement

  1. Patricia Kemp says:

    Thank you for sharing your insight, observations and analysis — wonderfully and simply expressed. My daughter, who is following the Arab Spring closely, noted that the only truly organized group in many of the countries is the Muslim Brotherhood and they have been tempering themselves offering social services and a much more moderate, appealing agenda. She believes its inevitable as part of the process of becoming more democratic states that the brotherhood will initially come to power, likely overreach and then new organized movements will begin to emerge.

    This is an evolutionary process with different groups and people moving into open niches. I’m inspired by Occupy. I deeply appreciate my progressive electeds and candidates who want to make a difference! Not either / or, but Together!

  2. Fred Beloit says:

    Yeah, it was all great fun. But the funniest thing of all was the nitwit anarchists calling for bigger and more invasive government.

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  4. Thomas Brown says:


    Your observations about the need for progressives to go beyond electoral organizing ring true, but your broad characterizations of the Occupiers as a group who consider government the enemy is simply not supported by the facts. Yes, there have been a few anarchists infiltrating occupy events (most notably targeting Occupy Oakland after their first general strike). But by and large, the majority of occupiers I know in the San Francisco Bay area are not anarchists or anti-government. In fact, the opposite is true.

    From the very beginning Occupy has focused on the greed and economic crimes of Wall Street bankers, their ability to get away with those crimes, and the fact that their obscene wealth enables them to buy the legislation they want. Occupy demands include the removal of money from politics, making bankers and corporations accountable to the 99% and putting a stop to the foreclosure madness (hence the “occupy your home” movement). Here in San Francisco our occupiers (who were evicted from their camp on Dec 7th) continue to sponsor weekly marches with different themes, all of which would fall into the traditional liberal agenda. They also have made alliances with local progressive politicians and are promoting the idea of forming a community bank. Do these goals sound anarchistic to you?

    One recent Occupy SF march promoted housing rights and ended up on Sansome Street (our version of Wall Street). We all sat down on the street for about an hour. And the student occupiers on UC campuses have already had a positive impact on the spiraling costs of a UC education. Just a few days ago the UC board of regents announced a middle class discount plan which will give people who earn between $80,000 and $140,000 a big discount on their annual fees. I credit the student occupiers (like the ones who took the pepper spray at UC Davis) for making this happen.

    I say God Bless the Occupiers. We should give them our support, not our snide condemnation.

    • Scott says:

      I live in SF and am a strong supporter of Occupy and everything you mention above. However, and I think this is the point being made in this article, change does not come solely from marching and protesting. You actually need people in office to legislate the change. The fact that only 30% of SF turned out to vote for mayor is tragic. Especially since the corporate guy is the one who got elected. So I ask YOU, where was the Occupy SF movement in our last election? Why did they not firmly get behind someone like John Avalos who is for pretty much every thing Occupy is for? Instead of focusing on keeping the physical occupation, maybe they should have occupied the voting booth and convinced other to as well.

    • Alexandra Gordon says:

      Just an aside: only in CA is b/w 80K and 140K considered “middle class”. I’m sorry, but I’m a UC (Davis) graduate (with 115K in student loan debt b/c my i worked and borrowed my way through undergrad and grad, parents didn’t cover it), who has never made more than 28K (and that only once). I think i made 8K last year. I want to go back to school so that one day, before I die, i might be able to pay off my loans and have a decent life. But there’s no way I can afford (let alone get back to, b/c i currently live in the oh-so-poor state of TN) to go to school in either CA or CO, the two states i have any emotional ties to. Do you think they’d give me a discount? (By the way, as 2002 UC graduate, I’m appalled by the tuition hikes)

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  6. Jim McBride says:

    I think moving forward Progressives need to focus more on “The 99%” than the “Occupy” message as it avoids confusion about “co-opting” and focuses on the priority message. Besides, the infrastructure that progressive groups bring is preferable to reach a wider audience but they need to learn from the occupations and make their communities more communications and outreach-focused with more frequent use of inclusive “bottom up” social and media-savvy initiatives.

  7. I must disagree with one point. Winning elections is everything. Its the whole ballgame. The 99% should all register Democratic, should decide among themselves on primary candidates, then vote for them in waves. Should the 99% act together, there could be enough “progressives” in the legislatures and Congress to impeach corporate Supreme Court Justices, even. We could ban money from politics. We could do anything.

    So winning elections is everything, from the local to the national level.

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  9. Thomas Brown says:

    Occupy is a sweeping social movement, not a partisan club or party. As a movement, it should not be expected to campaign for individual candidates. It does its job best by changing the discussion to one of economic justice, with a focus on the greed and crime of the top %. It’s within that framework that liberal politicians such as Avalos can garner support. To suggest that the Occupiers themselves should have gone knocking on doors for Avalos is missing the point of where they are most effective. Occupy will ultimately be judged by it’s ability to fundamentally change the discussion and values of this country in a positive way. So far, in just 3 months, I think it’s done a heck of a job.

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