January 13, 2012

Members of the Occupy movement are flocking to Capitol Hill to stage “Occupy Congress” on Tuesday, determined to confront the other 1 percent — politicians, not bankers — with grievances over student debt and the economic crisis.

But the marches, sit-ins and general assemblies that Occupiers plan to hold near the halls of power are as close as they will officially get to the Capitol. The movement doesn’t have ambitions for higher office in 2012. No one is dreaming of a Democratic Occupy caucus to match the House Republicans’ tea party group.

Occupy exists outside politics on purpose. Its decision-making processes are meant as a rebuke to the electoral system, in which both parties, activists say, are influenced by lobbying and corporate cash.

And yet, the movement can have a greater impact on American politics than an Occupy caucus ever could. Putting its concerns at the forefront of the debate this campaign season through nonpartisan tactics is a stronger strategy than backing a flash-in-the-pan candidate — as the tea party found with Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell, who attracted fascination but then faded in 2010. Occupy will push candidates to embrace its positions but won’t rely on them to be leaders of the movement — leaders who can fail, compromise or be toppled in a vote.

Occupy has already increased political attention for its key causes. By targeting banks, moving homeless people into foreclosed homes and even living in public, activists have forced candidates and voters to grapple with topics rare for the national stage — housing, poverty, student debt and financial influence over politics — without being tethered to politicians’ power the way a caucus or a third party might be. And they’ve had a remarkable influence on the discourse, leading even those seemingly inimical to them to offer sympathy, at least nominally.

Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney went from calling the protests “class warfare” to saying, just a few days later, “I worry about the 99 percent.” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) softened from calling the activists “mobs” to saying they are “justifiably frustrated.”

And President Obama himself, in a December speech in Kansas, addressed Occupy’s primary issue, income inequality, in his strongest terms yet.“This is not just another political debate,” he said. “This is the defining issue of our time.”

The strength of Occupy’s approach was evident on GOP primary day in New Hampshire, as the candidates — dogged by chanting, sign-carrying bands of as many as 50 protesters — began to echo the language of the movement. Texas Gov. Rick Perry even criticized Romney as a “vulture capitalist,” an unrepentant 1 percenter. The story of the night wasn’t just Romney’s victory, but also the anti-capitalist tenor of his opponents.

Meanwhile, outside New Hampshire, Occupy maintained a distinct identity. That same night, Occupiers in New York City streamed into the newly un-barricaded Zuccotti Park, resilient and eager to focus on what they do best: calling attention to inequality in America.

Even as the election horse race grabs the headlines, Occupy protesters can continue exerting this influence. Todd Gitlin, a former president of Students for a Democratic Society and now a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, told me that Occupiers can avoid the mistakes of previous movements by protesting in ways that are focused without being destructive. They can be political without politicking. They can keep holding issue-based direct actions, such as sit-ins at banks and evicted homes, combined with a broader mobilization around the problem of money in politics. Fighting on this latter front, even pushing to challenge Citizens United , would influence the political system, rather than individual political contests. “Occupy’s not running for office, it doesn’t need endorsements — it does need to be influential,” Gitlin said.

To that end, activists have told me, they plan to show up at debates, town halls and campaign stops with questions about income inequality. They may even help register voters. “One of the first times I felt empowered was the first time I voted,” said Aliya Rahman, a community organizer who has been involved with Occupy Cincinnati. On the local level, she says, there are progressive candidates whom Occupiers may want to work with and support — and on the national level, they can vote to “play defense.”

Still, some of Occupy’s more radical members will not want to engage with the voting process at all. The movement’s challenge is to avoid the fate of past progressive groups that have seen schisms over whether to work with the Democratic Party or stay “pure” — such as the New Left in 1968 and the Naderites in 2000.

Occupy must remain independent without being aloof. It must allow those supporters who feel inclined to knock on doors for campaigns to do so, while, as a movement, staying true to core principles.

A result of this dual focus is evident in the Massachusetts Senate race. A win by Democrat Elizabeth Warren, whose ideas and supporters overlap with Occupy’s, would be seen as a harbinger of an Occupy era. But a Warren loss, while undoubtedly a blow to progressives, wouldn’t be counted as a failure of the Occupy electoral strategy — because there isn’t one. Warren herself has said of Occupy, “this is an independent, organic movement. It’s its own voice,” while endorsing its critique of Wall Street.

“Occupy has everything to gain from her success, and she has everything to gain from riding the Occupy tide,” Gitlin said. But neither is wedded to the other’s organization, finances or policies.

On an October afternoon last year, I sat cross-legged with dozens of young progressive activists and writers on the pavement of Washington Square Park in New York as another professor and ’60s radical, Angela Davis, addressed Occupy Wall Street, expressing her thrill at the birth of a broad coalition of resistance. She assailed the two-party system, to great approval from the crowd. So, one young woman asked, “would there be more power in choosing to not vote at all?”

Davis’s answer summed up Occupy’s 2012 strategy: “When I said that we need a third party, a radical party, I was projecting toward the future,” she explained. “We cannot allow a Republican to take office. . . . Don’t we remember what it was like when Bush was president?”

Davis wasn’t urging Occupiers to go to the trenches for President Obama as a movement — though certainly some will do so as individuals. She was urging them to not use their new prominence in a way that could backfire and lead to right-wing consolidation of power. They can’t discourage people from voting. They should be wary, Gitlin noted to me, of any kind of large-scale clashes, potentially at the party conventions or at the G-8 meetings in Chicago in May, that would allow the media to link Occupy with violence.

“This movement reflects the forces that made it possible for Obama to be elected in the first place,” Davis told the crowd.

Indeed, the populist energy that went into Obama’s election is reflected in Occupy — and its members are aware of this. This time, instead of focusing grass-roots efforts on one candidate who will inevitably disappoint, many want to occupy the process and occupy the agenda.

Sarah Seltzer has covered the Occupy movement for the Nation, AlterNet and Ms. Magazine and is a contributor to “The 99%: How the Occupy Wall Street Movement Is Changing America.”

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