Those now known as "the 1 %" — though they are even fewer than that — have enough political power to consistently shape public policy to serve what they see as their interests, while seriously harming the rest of us and the planet. To maintain legitimacy they need to make greater or fewer concessions, depending on political realities of the moment. They and their representatives, however, are fundamentally unable to bring us peace, economic and health security, social justice, environmental responsibility, schools that nurture the open and vulnerable beings in their care and help them become empowered and informed citizens, and the rest of what most of us want and need.
The power of "the 99%" is greater but latent. If we were united in a massive movement — over a sustained period of time — we could either win campaign-finance and electoral-system reforms that would permit our own representatives to win office, or the change would be even more fundamental, a non-violent revolution.
There is no point in envisioning that movement as one that continues to pressure corporate-funded officials like Barack Obama* and members of Congress — the only kind who can win office. Why focus on a never- ending struggle to put out every fire they start in foreign policy, a budget drained by the military, the economy, etc. ? Our goal should be to become truly self-governing, to peacefully take over the reins of power. In any event, a sustained and powerful movement can only be built with a strategy for building it. Drifting from "action" to "action," à la the Occupy movement at its current stage of development, is not sufficient. (For more, see "What We Need Now", 2/3/12.)
Building that movement requires a new kind of political party, a massive, grass-roots-based membership organization. Unlike what we normally think of as a party, it will not focus on elections, which cannot be won on any significant scale by candidates outside the two-party system. Rather, it will concentrate on building the massive, sustained movement described above. Its primary tasks will be educating our people as to their true interests and the path forward, and empowering them by uniting as many as possible into it and affiliated organizations. (See "Organizing a United, Powerful, Sustainable Movement," 2/13/12.)
Deciding Where We're Going
Such a party will need a program. The dominant parties are not united around programs. Although each stakes out a certain image and philosophy, there is room within either for any candidate for office who self-identifies as a member, regardless of the person’s views on war and militarism, education, taxation, labor policy, civil rights, or any other issue. Congressional votes are not necessarily along party lines. While it has become fashionable to blame the country's problems on a Congress paralyzed by partisanship, and there are certainly partisan dynamics in play, the deeper truth is that being a Democrat or Republican is a brand-name label that one can slap on oneself without regard to what one does in office.
Thus Democratic Senator Zell Miller gave the keynote speech at the 2004 Republican Convention, attacking the Democratic presidential ticket, and he was in no way disciplined by his party. In 2006, in a terrific upset, anti-war candidate Rick Lamont beat Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut primary. But Lieberman ran in the general election as an independent, and he won with the quiet support of both the Democratic and Republican establishments (including Obama and Hilary Clinton). In 2008 Lieberman campaigned for John McCain, but the Democrats still treated him as one of their own. He was allowed to stay in the Democratic caucus and retain key committee chairmanships.
With some effort one can find the “platforms” of each of the political parties. These are extremely general documents that change every four years at the presidential nominating convention. They have little to do with anything in the real world. This is because neither dominant party is a membership organization of individuals whose goal is to promote policies that they agree on. Each is a structure to be used by candidates who select themselves or are selected by powerful backers, who then build temporary organizations to raise funds and do campaign-season marketing.
For very different reasons, the Occupy movement has developed without a program as well. There has been an interesting debate about whether it should have demands. (Major drawbacks: (a) demands can give the existing order legitimacy by implying that it can and will meet them; (b) they can be presented in a way that suggests there are isolated problems to solve, rather than a systemic problem with many manifestations.) But if we are thinking of a grass-roots-based political party, the matter is clear. An organization pursuing a long-term strategy based on building a massive movement for social change must articulate the change for which it is working.
Unity on Priorities
This is true for several reasons. We need to know what we are about. Some people in Occupy, for example, have argued that insufficient attention is going to militarism, the foreign policies it supports, and the practically unimaginable scale of its diversion of resources from our true needs. Similarly, it has been suggested that failure to seriously address the state of the health care system is an "elephant in the room" of Occupy. But, without a forum for hammering out a program, all that the proponents of these views can do is propose projects and hope enough people in Occupy will respond for something to happen. Moreover, the time could come where groups taking advantage of Occupy's broad umbrella will campaign around issues that the majority of Occupiers actually do not support.
Consciously Addressing Different Sectors' Needs
The process of deliberating about a clear program will allow those of us forming a party to directly confront important questions about class, race, and sex. There is a class (and therefore racial and ethnic) bias in Occupy, if only because poor and working-class people are less likely to have the time and the internet access to participate in a movement organized as it is now. The issues it gravitates towards, therefore, will leave it with blind spots regarding matters like the minimum wage, unemployment benefits, and the health care problems mentioned above. Similarly, a new organization will have to determine its stance on highly regressive sales taxes, versus income and property taxes that to some extent affect the middle classes more.
As it considers its strategy, it will look carefully at the widely-varying sectors of "the 99%." For it to become something around which they can coalesce in a unified movement, it must learn from them what their needs are, then hammer out a program that reconciles and pursues the interests of those who can and should be working together. Today, let's say, people encounter members of the working poor or the suburban middle class who sympathize with Occupy's criticisms of Washington and Wall Street but doubt that the movement is really fighting for them. Where is the statement of what Occupy is working towards, one that will begin to show them that the movement truly represents their interests? And without such a statement, what could it use, now or in the future, to counter any media distortions of what it stands for?
Irrelevant, fringe movements have no problem keeping their statements of their goals as pure as they want them to be. In contrast, people who truly want to develop political power are sooner or later tempted to water down their message in order to attract a broader base. The extreme of such opportunism is represented by the packaging of conventional politicians. At best, these people tell themselves that they say what they need to say publicly in order to win office and stay there, where — they imagine — their good intentions will permit them to come closer to doing the right thing than someone else.
But those of us working for a deeper transformation will face the same temptation. We must remember that (a) fundamental change can come only from the long-term project of building a major movement, and (b) part of building that movement is educating a consistently-miseducated citizenry. In that light, backing away from what we stand for to win the temporary support of people who cannot yet support us is counter-productive. Every Senator — no matter how liberal — who feels like he or she has to toss around phrases like "maintaining America's military superiority" is not a leader, but a follower and — more important — part of the problem, promoting the false ideology that maintains the status quo. Our good intentions will not keep us from doing the same. What will help keep us honest, however, is uniting on a program, taking it seriously, holding anyone who desires to speak for us accountable to it and disowning those who head off in their own directions, and referring to that program time and again when — in shorter campaigns over particular issues — we are debating what our message is and what our demands are.
Conclusion: Programmatic Clarity Versus Convenient Vagueness
Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign fired up tens of millions with a generalized promise of "Change" which people could interpret as meaning whatever they wanted it to. That was perfect proof of how far the dominant parties are from being grass-roots organizations of people united around goals that they decide for themselves and pursue steadfastly. And the result was predictable, given Obama's actual record and and actual funding sources: No peace, and such disappointments in the realms of social justice, economic policy and regulation of business, health security, and the rest, that only the threatened return of more extreme right-wing rule can make people support a second Obama term.
Occupy, if it remains a loose-knit movement with no clearer statement of purpose than it has today, will be unable to fulfill its potential, hamstrung in its efforts at pulling in a broad base, incapable of coalescing into a force to be reckoned with. If its momentum is guided by a definite vision of what it is fighting for, informed by a clear strategy for achieving it, and channeled into organizational forms appropriate to that strategy, its potential to create a peaceful revolution will be fulfilled. In any event, something else will arise to fulfill that potential.
*In 2008, Barack Obama broke the record for corporate fundraising, while cultivating the opposite image. (For details, scroll down to the headline, "But He Needs to Get Elected" in this post, as well as the hyperlinked sources in endnote 10 at the bottom.) Regarding his early corporate bonanza for 2012, see this February 2 Globe and Mail story, which details, how, "[w]hile the Obama campaign touts its reliance on small donors, . . . the really serious money is brought in by the President's army of über-connected bundlers." More analysis, based on federal data posted by The Center for Responsive politics, is in this Huffington Post piece. This one reports Obama's attending fundraisers with $35,800 price tags for attendees the night of the Florida Republican primary.
The result is that "He says one thing and does another," as Ralph Nader's analysis of Obama's State of the Union Address explains.