Occupy Congress

Sooner or later activists in any American movement confront the possibility of trying to adjust the thermostat, and not just the climate.

On Tuesday, January 17, when members of Congress return to Washington, DC, they’ll be met by Occupiers.  There will be demonstrations, certainly, and I’d be astonished if at least some activists don’t try to pitch tents.  And there will be a range of issues: an end to “corporate personhood;” a push for affordable health insurance and college educations; general concern with using taxation and spending to ameliorate growing economic inequality.  Occupy groups are also taking on statehood for Washington, DC, cutting defense spending, and ensuring open access on the internet.  The news angle on these events is that Occupiers are also going to try to meet with members of Congress, conducting politics indoors as well as outdoors.

Even as Occupiers try to schedule, there’s no indication that they’re trying to ingratiate themselves or their movement with members of Congress. From Occupy Wall Street, we get a clear view of an Occupy take on taking on Congress:

At 9 am on the opening day of Congress, Occupy Congress will convene for a day of action against a corrupt political institution. Actions include a multi-occupational General Assembly, teach-ins, an OCCUParty, a pink slip for every congressional “representative” and a march on all three branches of a puppet government that sold our rights and our futures to the 1%.

This is an illegitimate system. Around half of the nation’s population doesn’t participate in electoral politics. More than 6 million Americans who want to vote are disenfranchised, including the entire populace of the District of Columbia. There is consensus that we are on the wrong track and that our “leaders” do not have our interests at heart.

All “elected” officials bought their way into gerrymandered seats with Wall Street money. These bankers’ henchmen have shown themselves both unwilling and unable to take on the tremendous, systemic issues in our country, our place in this world…We came to show the 1%’s Congress what democracy looks like.

Our nation, and our world, is in crisis and our “elected” officials have failed us. They refused to hold their bankrollers—Wall Street—responsible for the financial crimes that bankrupted our nation and destroyed the global economy. This last legislative cycle was the least productive in recorded U.S. history; 90% of the country disapproves of these “elected” officials.

There’s an obvious tension between the strong rhetoric proclaimed in Zuccotti Park–and on websites everywhere–and an actual–and possibly productive–conversation that may take place in an elected official’s office–even if you put quotation marks around “elected.”

Congress, you see, is already occupied.  Pretending this isn’t the case–or that it doesn’t matter–dooms a movement to a marginal place in American politics that most activists won’t accept.  It’s a tension built into the system.

While activists in the streets rail against inequality, unfair taxation, health care, and debt for housing and education, there are people in Washington DC making decisions that affect relevant policies.  Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away, nor does it make them less powerful.  Some legislators might be affected by the quality of an argument, or strengthened in their convictions when they find some citizens who see things as they do.  The argument might become more persuasive if a legislator believed it came with help in the next election, financial or otherwise.  This might mean tapering off on the sarcasm and the scare quotes.

The problem for activists is the distinct possibility that more conventional politics might matter, and the ongoing question is whether it could matter enough.  While activists who lobby see the potential in pragmatism, their allies in the streets smell the prospects of a sell-out.

There’s not a formula for negotiating this balance, and activists supporting different strategies can develop every bit as much antipathy for each other as their political opponents.  But savvy demonstrators know that they do better when allies explain the demands in longer and more nuanced sentences.  And citizen lobbyists think they’ll get a better hearing when the voices outside turn up the volume.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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2 Responses to Occupy Congress

  1. Pingback: Occupy hits the Capitol, with plans to Occupy Congress | The 99 Percent - Occupy Wall Street

  2. Pingback: Occupy Oakland and the militant wing of a movement | Politics Outdoors

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