Unlike the Tea Party, the Occupy movement wasn’t visibly invested in the elections. Occupy groups didn’t endorse candidates, even candidates who came out of the Occupations. Occupy groups didn’t raise money for the elections, didn’t form PACs, much less SuperPacs, and didn’t buy television ads. While the Tea Party’s showing was a disappointment to its activists–and still a threat to the Republican Party, the elections were more or less a sideshow for Occupy.
But politicians responded to the pressures of Occupy, at least for a while. President Obama’s speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, in early December as the encampments were evacuated, marked a dramatic shift in focus for the White House. From a desperate and defensive focus on the deficit, Obama moved to talk about the problem of gross and growing economic inequality. This was more difficult territory for his Republican opponents to address, as Mitt Romney demonstrated in his unfortunate remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who were addicted to government. (It turned out that it was Governor Romney who won about 47 percent of the popular vote.)
From time to time, Occupy protesters would turn up at candidate events, including the national conventions. They didn’t get much attention most of the time, but occasionally a well-choreographed mic check could fluster a candidate, as you’ll see in Michele Bachmann’s response to an unanticipated mic check below.
Unlike the Tea Party, Occupy didn’t divide its support among candidates for office. Barack Obama was unchallenged for the Democratic nomination, and while Occupiers occasionally challenged him theatrically, they didn’t mount an organized effort to defeat him at the polls. A few Occupiers ran for office, without much attention or success. A somewhat larger group of regular politicians expressed their identification with Occupy, most notably Massachusetts new senator, Elizabeth Warren. But these candidates used Occupy to amplify issues they already cared about, and defined Occupy in their own terms. Senator Warren, for example, campaigned for strong regulation of Wall Street, not the end of capitalism.
Occupy pushed Obama to the left, and that helped him; indeed, when Romney tried to move a little to the left, that helped him as well. Occupy may be able to claim some of the credit.
Over at Mobilizing Ideas, Jen Schradie credits Occupy with the formulation and passage of Proposition 30 in California, which provided a temporary tax hike that would forestall even more extensive cuts to public education. Championed by Governor Jerry Brown, the proposition raised income taxes only on the very wealthy, but also provided for an increase in the sales tax for everyone. Schradie sees a worker-student alliance that forced the trustees not to raise tuition–this year, and will provide a basis for further action.
I’m not convinced. Governor Brown negotiated a poll-tested proposal with the California Teachers Union, which spent and advertised heavily. The victory (54.7%) was significant (maintaining an enrollment of 32 in my daughter’s 3rd grade class), but voters resoundingly rejected a more progressive and more permanent solution to the ongoing California budget crisis for education (Proposition 38, which was trounced). Proposition 30 was a temporary relief from a crisis in public higher education, but hardly a massive progressive victory. It was exactly the kind of pragmatic stopgap solution we’d expect from a centrist governor, and absolutely not the kind of visionary change in direction we’d expect from a successful social movement.
But passing Proposition 30–and reelecting President Obama–were still infinitely preferable to the alternatives for most Occupiers. It’s not really clear how much Occupy had to do with these outcomes. The higher-than-expected turnout of young voters in one hint of potential influence.
The indirect influence, however, makes it hard for Occupy to enforce claims on the president or Congress. As the campaign continued, Obama ran against Romney more than for a broad new agenda. He now has some political space to define just what that means. If President Obama pushes for strong investment in public goods, including education, and a more progressive tax system, that would support the Occupy case. If instead we hear about grand bargains and cuts in entitlements, well, that’s another story.
And the next question will be whether Occupy can reemerge to maintain a voice for Occupiers’ ideas.