by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
June 15, 2012
WANT SOCIAL CHANGE? IT WON'T HAPPEN AT THE BALLOT BOX
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- If the victory of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in his recall election on June 6 teaches us anything, the lesson is that the Democratic Party cannot be counted upon to do what it takes to win an election.
You had a true grassroots movement that flooded the state capital in the winter of 2011, the biggest this nation had seen in years. And that momentum was squandered by a political party afraid of grassroots activism.
So many things went wrong in Wisconsin that it looks more and more like the Democrats could actually lose the White House and the Senate in November.
Instead of harnessing the energy of that Wisconsin winter, the tens of thousands of people that marched on Madison were told by the Democratic leadership that their energies would be best focused on recalling state senators.
The recall elections last summer were only partially successful. And in the end, Walker managed to ram through the bill that stripped public workers of their rights to collectively bargain.
The momentum of those Madison protests had dissipated, ironically, just about at the moment that the Occupy Wall Street movement they helped ignite was starting to have an impact across the nation.
When the activists in Wisconsin turned away from civil disobedience and public protest, and put their faith into the electoral process, their movement was finished: the energy that went into the street protests was channelled instead into getting enough signatures to force a recall election for Walker in 2012.
While activists did well to gather 1 million signatures needed to start the recall process, little was done to capitalize upon that energy to win the election. The Democratic Party and the national AFL-CIO didn't treat the election as a priority, and didn't commit resources and money until it was too late. President Obama offered no support.
In the view of Andy Kroll, a reporter in the Washington D.C., bureau of Mother Jones magazine and an associate editor at TomDispatch.com, the mistake made by Wisconsin activists was "letting [activism] be channeled solely into traditional politics, into the usual box of uninspired candidates and the usual line-up of debates, primaries, and general elections."
"The uprising was too broad and diverse to fit electoral politics comfortably," he recently wrote for TomDispatch.com. "You can't play a symphony with a single instrument. Nor can you funnel the energy and outrage of a popular movement into a single race, behind a single well-worn candidate, at a time when all the money in the world from corporate 'individuals' and right-wing billionaires is pouring into races like the Walker recall."
That's why the Occupy people have avoided politics. The political process as it is now exists in the United States is calculated to marginalize and ultimately silence dissenting voices and ideas. So instead of focusing on a political candidate or party, Occupy focused on an idea - income inequality and how the growing gap between rich and poor threatens our democracy. By taking that tack, they managed to move the national political dialogue away from austerity and deficit reduction, and have an effect without a single ballot being cast.
Look to Quebec for what people power can accomplish. For the past four months, a strike by college students to protest tuition and fee hikes imposed by the provincial government has been transformed into a broad popular uprising. Nearly every night, as many as 100,000 people clog the streets of Montreal and bang on pots and pans demanding an end to economic austerity measures.
The provincial government has tried to crack down, but has had little success doing so. This is a battle of wills between the growing discontent of Quebecers and an increasingly isolated corporate state. And the strength of the grievances that have driven people into the streets is growing faster than governments' efforts to contain it.
The Republicans won't be defeated at the ballot box. They have the money, and are busy rigging the system as the Democrats offer token resistance. The electoral process has become nothing more than a cruel charade, as the press is in thrall to the powerful, and the institutions we once counted upon have been hollowed out and left for dead.
As Fathyer Daniel Berrigan said, there is only one place where those who care about justice need to be - in the streets. Only the power of nonviolent action will create the social and economic change we so desperately need.
From Gandhi to Dr. King to Vaclav Havel, the men and women who, in Berrigan's words, "are willing to pay the price for being human," can ultimately remake the world.
That is the challenge that lies before us.
AR Chief Correspondent Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com. He also serves as editor of Brattleboro, Vt.'s leading weekly newspaper, The Commons; the paper was awarded the first prize for General Excellence last month by the Vermont Press Assn.