Sweet stirrings of a new world: fringe politics overturning the barricades

The venerable social critic Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker contrasts the Tea Party with the Occupy movement in this week’s magazine, and finds the Occupy movement lacking in precisely what has made the Tea Party so strong: a willingness to get involved in (and take money from) the established American political parties.

“Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are both protest movements, not interest groups,” Hertzberg says, “and while both are wary, or claim to be, of established political figures and organizations, each welcomes their praise, if not their direction. Both have already earned places in the long, raucous history of American populism. But only one, so far, has earned a place in the history of American government.”

Are we supposed to be proud that the Tea Party has “earned” an infamous place as the launching pad for the new cadre of rightwing Republican zealots who have spent their time in Congress obstinately shooting down and stampeding every effort by President Obama and the Democrats to steer this nation towards a more compassionate and forward-looking political stance?

In its few years of existence, the Tea Party has happily wormed its way into the main arteries of American political power.  Hertzberg offers an apt metaphor of this tea as a new wonder drug, “injected into the scarred veins” of the GOP, which has quickly become addicted to this mainlined source of entranced, stupified frenzy.

“Now the Democrats are hoping the drug might be available as a generic,” Hertzberg continues, eying the Occupy movement as a way to enliven its own moribund political base.

I firmly hope that the Occupy movement does not allow itself to be used in this way by the political establishment, and I think it’s a reasonable, if remarkable, hope.

Remarkable because for so long Americans have been asleep, indifferent or unaware of what Hertzberg calls “the astounding growth of what can fairly be called plutocracy.”

Why it took so long for the sleeping giant of American popular opinion to wake up is a question for historians of the turn of the 21st century to ponder.

Why is it that Americans have been voting against their own class interests so long?  Why is the persistent myth of American equality, liberty and justice for all so teflon-coated?

We all want to believe that our country represents the moral high ground in the world, and that our leaders in government are as invested in upholding our idealism as we are.

Our public education system, which is responsible for the education of a great portion of the 99%, aids and abets this self-delusion by giving students the most doctrinaire and uncritical version of American history and civics, and teaching docility and proficiency at standardized testing above all.

Our media doesn’t help much; with the exception of a few poorly funded but stalwart independent outlets, the vast social landscape of contemporary media is focused at best on distraction, and very often on outright deception.

Under the pressures of this kind of social conditioning, it’s remarkable that the young idealists in the Occupy movement have had such success in galvanizing the country to wake up, shake ourselves, and stare around us with new eyes.

Hertzberg obviously intends his column as a signpost for the Occupy movement, pointing towards Washington D.C. as a more important battleground than Wall Street.  “Ultimately, inevitably, the route to real change has to run through politics,” he concludes; “the politics of America’s broken, god-awful, immutably two-party electoral system, the only one we have.”

Here is a glaring example of the kind of civics mis-education that has made our country so hard to reform over the years.

Who says our political system is limited to two parties?  Or at least, to the two parties we have now?

The Republicans and the Democrats have shown themselves to be chronically unable to lead this country out of the morass of special interests and ruthless corporate-driven capitalism that has bulldozed right over our cherished ideals of equality, not to mention the sacred ecological web that forms the real foundation of all our wealth and prosperity.

The Occupy movements are showing their intelligence in shying away from engagement with the established political system.  If anything, their political allies are more likely to be found in those perennial political organizations that have always camped out on the fringes of our electoral parks: the Green Parties or the Rainbow Coalitions.

Remember Ralph Nader, for example?  Remember how Big Media colluded with the established parties in denying so-called “outside” candidates a seat at the table at the televised Presidential debates?

This year the Ralph Naders of the political world have suddenly swelled their ranks dramatically, but without the figurehead of a single leader at the head of the crowd.  As Nader knows only too well, one man at the head of a true opposition movement is open to all the slings and arrows that the establishment can muster.  Even Gore and Kerry have felt the force of the muddy vomit pitched their way out of the far-right Republican swampland.

Far better for the Occupy movements to stay plural and collective, strong in the anonymity of the multitudes.  Those of us who are serious about doing more than simply rearranging the deck chairs on the great hulking Titanic of American politics realize that “America’s broken, god-awful, immutably two-party electoral system” is exactly what has to go.

OK, Hendrik, it may be the only one we HAVE HAD, but now the veil has been torn down, the people are awake, and we realize that another world is possible.  As Arundhati Roy famously put it, “on a clear day, I can hear her breathing.”

That clear day has dawned.

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