Why Occupy Wall Street Needs to Take Democrats Up on Their Offer Why Occupy Wall Street Needs Democratic Friends in Congress
Occupy Wall Street has already started to shape the language of the 2012 elections. Major Democrats—including Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, and even the president—have expressed solidarity with the movement. Other members of Congress, like Raul Grijalva and Keith Ellison, have offered their support, too, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is promoting a petition to seek 100,000 supporters to declare their support for the protesters.
For evidence, protesters need look no further than the Tea Party, which has wielded a huge amount of influence by ushering in a wave of fresh faces on Capitol Hill. Some charismatic candidates, like Marco Rubio and Allen West, decided that the shoe fit after being labeled Tea Party darlings by the media and courted by the movement itself. (Shortly after West's incendiary speech, in which he told the audience to "grab their muskets and bayonets," went viral in 2009, he started to agree with reporters who hounded him about his Tea Party allegiances.) Others spotted an opportunity for national recognition. Michele Bachmann was known for her culture-war conservatism until she decided to launch the Senate's Tea Party caucus and run for president as a fiscal conservative. The original mastermind of the caucus, freshman senator Rand Paul, seemed to coast to victory on that merit alone. Regardless of how these politicians got to Washington, the agenda of the GOP has been partly if not largely shaped by Tea Partiers in its congressional ranks.
Of course, embracing a protest movement can also be a dealbreaker—for voters and candidates. The more extreme side of the Tea Party, the faction that waves bigoted misspelled signs and heckles the president, has turned off voters. Recent polls show that only 20 percent of the public sympathizes with Tea Party politics, while 40 percent oppose them. Many of the far-right candidates of 2010—like Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Joe Miller—handed easy wins to their more moderate opponents. The majority of the Occupy Wall Street protesters are more intent on quelling corporate greed and creating jobs than overthrowing capitalism, but there's a risk of the average American watching a Fox News report, spotting an "Eat the Rich" poster, and thinking "Whoa, that's not me." Conservatives and even some moderates have ignored the movement's populist message and focused on more incoherent fringe demonstrators.
And even though some leaders and organizations are on board with Occupy Wall Street, other politicians will be more hesitant. Given how easily the "Obama is a Communist" rumors spread, some candidates may squirm in their seats over the movement's unabashed empathy with socialism. And joining the movement isn't exactly a great way to raise campaign money. The Tea Party had a major leg up in this department—their definition of freedom aligned nicely with global corporations'—but that's not true of Occupy Wall Street. As one Wall Street protester deftly pointed out, more than 90 percent of Congressional elections depend on who has the most funding, making it an uphill struggle for a politician who doesn't have corporate dollars lining his pockets.
Still, if Occupy Wall Street can learn anything from the Tea Party, it's that having anti-establishment undertones doesn't preclude a movement from infiltrating the establishment. On the contrary, this is the best way to wield power and gain legitimacy. The core group of protesters cuddling up in sleeping bags on the ground Zuccotti Park reject the idea of elevating one or two leaders, but unofficial spokespeople have already appeared, and politicians will certainly follow suit. And Occupy Wall Streeters accept the premise of government help, making it easy for demonstrators to connect with lawmakers. They're not calling for Washington to butt out of their lives, they're imploring our leaders to intervene. This is a perfect opportunity to get Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin, Eric Griego, and other progressive 2012 candidates on board with their framing. Rather than being the Party of No, they'll be expected to work hard to protect 99 percent of Americans.
If Occupy Wall Street succeeds in spreading its inclusive "99 Percenters" message to Washington, it has a real chance of appealing to voters and garnering political allies. But it's not going to happen unless the movement proactively seizes this opportunity. A huge rally in the capital would help. Candidates speaking at local protests would be effective, too. Organizers need to have direct conversations with Congresspeople, and come up with solutions that easily translate to policy. The aim should shift from fat cats to the politicians who apologize for them. Occupy Wall Streeters may be angry with Washington, but they still need to join 'em before they can beat 'em.