Is incumbency another word for occupation?
Today two self-identified Occupiers announced candidacies for local office in Northern California. Jeff Kravitz, a lawyer who has represented Occupy Sacramento activists, is running for a county board seat. So is Gary Blenner, a high school teacher who has previously served as an elected member of a school board.*
In Philadelphia, Nate Kleinman, a legislative assistant to a state representative, has announced that he intends to challenge Democratic Rep. Allyson Schwartz for her seat in the House of Representatives. He has experience working in Democratic campaigns, but emphasizes his Occupy Philadelphia connections and commitments. Berkeley Professor George Lakoff has written that contesting elections is the logical step toward influencing policy for Occupy, while others have argued that Occupiers should focus on the initiative process, rather than particular candidates.
Electoral politics is a natural next step for a growing social movement, but it’s not easy or uncontroversial. In real life, activists need to take a position on each election, even if that position is to opt out. But just because one doesn’t want to take institutional power seriously doesn’t mean it will go away. Activists and advocates neglect electoral politics at their peril.
For Occupy, which has created a broad political umbrella uniting a broad range of claims about political and economic inequality, there is no trademark protection. Anyone who wants to call themselves an Occupier–or a supporter–can try to do so, and can try to campaign on this identity. Whether or not the people who camped out in urban parks–or the much larger group of people who sympathized with them–will support them is quite another matter.
The American political system, offering many elected offices and frequent and routine elections, works to bring movement politics indoors. It forces aspirants for office to build broad coalitions, address multiple issues, and work with people who are at least a little different from them.
The Occupy candidates will have to figure out stances on issues that matter directly to their voters, and come up with ways to finance campaigns. They’ll have to deal with the two-party system, either by working through the Democratic Party (as the Tea Party has worked with Republicans), or staging third party campaigns that are unlikely to succeed in winning office (Gary Blenner, referenced above, had most recently run unsuccessfully for reelection to school board as a Green
Far more important than the first Occupiers to run for office will be the electoral choices that the much larger number of activists and supporters make. Surely some will eschew electoral politics altogether, reasoning that the terminally corrupt system forces compromises that make meaningful change impossible. They’ll say: “Don’t vote, it only encourages them.” But elected officials can operate without our encouragement. They’ll call self-identified Occupy candidates sell-outs–or worse.
I suspect the electoral abstainers will be a sliver of the broad movement, and that most Occupy advocates will haul themselves out to the polls and make a choice from the options in front of them. Call it the lesser of two evils, or call it doing the best you can in a real, rather than imagined, world.
Remember, things can always be worse.
* Corrected, January 27, 2012.