This interview with The Nation Washington editor and Wisconsin native John Nichols is a must read for anyone who wants more effective Left-wing politics -- not because he describes how last year's protests started in our home state, but because he describes how last year's protests were the first effective ones since the 1960s:
"[Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker] did implement parts of his [anti-union] agenda, but two days after he signed the bill, 180,000 people came to the square in Madison. What they understood, that our media and our political class has yet to catch up with, is that once you’ve begun to assemble to petition for the redress of grievances, you don’t stop just because they don’t say yes the first time. That is so powerful.
And I would argue that that is a renewal of an American protest tradition that I think really faded after the ‘60s. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t stop with one march. The anti-war movement didn’t. And the women’s movement, in its early days, really had continual action. You have to keep coming back and you have to combine the street, the assembly, with the electoral. The electoral can never exist anymore in isolation. If all that progressive politics is about is electing “the right person,” it’s doomed.
But if you combine the street with the electoral, fascinating things happen. When hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites assembled, Democratic state senators looked out the window and said, we can either be cogs in the machine or we can respond to this demand. The assembly and petition for the redress of grievances worked. You got one of the major political parties to become what it’s supposed to be, a pro-labor party. There’s still a lot of work to do there, but boy, that’s dramatic."
Nichols' point is that left-leaning legislators need the help of popular demands in order to protect the people from oligarchic abuse, and he's right. I would add, however, that the reverse is also true. Protests need the help of electoral action and principled leadership by elected officials in order to be effective: in the greatest act of political fortitude of 2011 those Wisconsin lawmakers fled the state under threat of coercion to ram the anti-union bill through, which further inspired the protestors. And since then the protests have been combined with an electoral recall drive that bloodied Walker's political nose and now threatens to unseat him. It’s that electoral threat, and not merely the protests themselves, that have Walker and cronies on the defensive in Wisconsin.
As I have said before, demonstrations must be combined with electoral and legislative action to create real transformation. The lesson at the national level ought to be that Occupy protests alone won't work: either President Obama and his party have to lead, or they should be replaced. I’m not unrealistic: that obviously isn't going to happen in this election. But the point is that it means that we shouldn't expect real change at the federal level for several more years. Only when the Left wakes up and starts voting in a principled way will change begin.