Just because you don’t hear that many news stories about the Occupy movement these days doesn’t mean that they’re not still active. Although the television-friendly encampments of a few years ago may be gone, the people and energy of Occupy have moved towards grassroots movements to better people’s conditions. These might not make for what television news producers think will get them ratings — they only want to cover the guy who punches a little old lady in the face, not the one who helps her across the street — but it’s still important work, even if few people (outside of those it directly helps) ever hear about it.
There are a couple of very good reasons for liberals to engage in these on-the-ground efforts: First of all, there’s no getting around the fact that the United States right now is, among developed countries, very conservative, and electoral change is a slow process. Even in an absolute pipe dream scenario for liberals, the Green Party could not gain control of both the executive and legislative branches until 2017 at the earliest (which would assume winning literally every Senate race they run both this year and in 2016), and then they’d still have to deal with a very unfriendly Supreme Court even if some of its conservatives stepped down. Given the entrenched positions both the Republican and Democratic parties hold in this country, for the Green Party to win even one seat in Washington in that time would be considered nothing short of a miracle. Electoral success, when and if it does come for liberals, will likely be slow.
That problem dovetails into the other main reason to seek ways to achieve liberal outcomes outside of the government: Too many Americans, and too many people worldwide, are suffering too much at this very moment for liberals not to try to alleviate their suffering by the quickest possible means. For all the talk of rising stock markets and shrinking budget deficits and lower unemployment rates, those numbers obscure the very real pain so many Americans are under right now, to say nothing of what the spread of American corporatism is doing to citizens of other countries. As much as I enjoy the “what-if” mental games of projecting the next two elections (and we’re being positively inundated with it right now thanks to Hillary Clinton’s book tour), every minute spent talking about the 2016 presidential election, or even this year’s midterms, is a minute spent not talking about the very current and very real problems Americans are facing because their unemployment insurance has been cut off, or they can only get part-time work and can’t afford to make their mortgage payments, or they can’t work full time because federal support for their kids’ after-school programme has been cut and they need to go home to supervise their children. There are far too many of these problems, and they are too pressing to leave for 2015 or 2017, so that makes it even more important for conscientious Americans of all political stripes to do what they can, privately, to help those in need.
Unfortunately, conservatives aren’t happy with just cutting off government support to those who need help. A new wave of legislation is now preventing even private Americans from helping each other out, and it’s looking more and more like it will necessitate liberals, despite the odds, getting involved directly in politics at all levels just so they can continue to provide private help to needy Americans.
I may strongly disagree with the conservative notion that public monies shouldn’t be used to provide a basic safety net to our least fortunate citizens (or at least that the net shouldn’t be very big), but I think that point of view does come from a legitimate philosophical concern over the proper role of government. It’s important to have intelligent voices debating these issues in a democracy, so voters have good points of view to consider when they go to the polls. Unfortunately, for too many conservatives the idea of shrinking the safety net is not based in some deep philosophical belief about the size of government, but is merely a convenient excuse to explain their rank selfishness. It doesn’t help that right-wing media actively markets that kind of excuse-making to their listeners.
It’s one thing for conservative lawmakers to use their elected power to chip away at the safety net, even in the face of strong evidence that the safety net needs to be enlarged and not shrunken. (There is a place to argue about the legitimacy of certain election outcomes and the like, but that doesn’t get to the main point of the present debate.) When these lawmakers then go the extra step to curtail how private citizens can help those in need, however, it is not only an incredibly inhumane act to take, but it is a direct impediment to the freedom of citizens of a democracy to act in the way they best see fit. The irony that this new wave of legislation would come from a Republican party that makes so much of “freedom” in their rhetoric, but openly legislates against citizens’ freedoms much of the time, is all too familiar of a refrain. That these restrictions to charity are coming from a Republican party that pathologically wraps itself in the mantle of “Christianity” is similarly familiar, but still deeply shameful.
The effort to “disappear” homeless people by Republicans — never mind that their own policies are responsible for creating so many homeless people — is yet another example of magickal thinking on their part, that they can avoid a problem simply by making the evidence of that problem disappear. This is one of the greatest strengths of the right-wing media bubble, since it leads to many conservatives simply not knowing of the deleterious effects of conservative policies (and thus ensuring an ever-loyal bloc of voters who can be counted to turn out at every election), but it creates one of the biggest dangers to society at large because it promotes to all citizens the false idea that problems go away if you don’t look at them or think about them, and that can be very dangerous thinking regardless of what ideologies you subscribe to.
Although the effort to stop cities from raising their minimum wage differs somewhat in its form, it comes from the same basic idea. It should be no surprise that in the wake of the greatest Republican assault on voting rights in a generation, conservative governors are taking away the rights of individual cities, whether by local government action or even popular referendum, to raise the minimum amount of money a resident has the right to earn for their hard work. The $10.10 per hour minimum wage being proposed by President Obama, while certainly an improvement over what we have now, would still result in hundreds of thousands of Americans who work full-time jobs being in poverty. Even raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, as some cities have been courageous enough to do, would still leave too many working Americans unable to provide adequately for themselves. Still, in an increasing number of states, their residents are losing the power to provide even this benefit to the workers in their city because conservatives would rather trod on their freedoms than have people keep and use the ability to improve their lot by raising the local minimum wage.
Because so many conservatives are locked into this idea that it is better to keep a permanent underclass of society to hold up as an example of why the government shouldn’t help the needy, despite the economic harm it causes everyone by lowering the number of consumers in the market and increasing crime and incarceration rates (to say nothing of other harms), the movement to legislate against private charity shouldn’t be all that surprising, especially given how shameless so many conservatives have become about their misanthropy. Still, this marks a new epoch in conservatives’ war against the least fortunate Americans, and there’s no reason to believe that they will stop with just attacks on low-wage workers and the homeless.
I briefly toyed with the idea of running for Congress this year before abandoning it. Part of the reason for that was because Ohio Republicans gerrymandered the heck out of the state after the 2010 midterms, and there’s really no chance of anyone unseating the incumbent Republican. (When he sponsored the most anti-net neutrality bill in Congress earlier this year, though, I had second thoughts about that decision.) More to the point, American politics is a cesspool (and that may be putting it mildly), and while we can argue about how much worse it’s gotten in that regard in my lifetime, I don’t think there’s any question that it has gotten worse. Even with the low profile I’d have as a third-party candidate, I would still have to endure such a high volume of crap during my hypothetical run for office that, at the time, I considered that too big of a drawback when I weighed it against all the potential benefits that might come out of my candidacy, and I decided it was better for me to continue to focus my efforts in the private sphere. This is likely the same thought process that has led many other liberals to shun the nasty world of politics and instead focus on non-political ways of achieving their goals.
If conservatives continue to attack the ability of ordinary Americans to help our least fortunate through private means, though, it may mean that some of us will have no choice but to enter the political arena, despite its fetid stench and the personal hardships we’re likely to endure, just to keep those private avenues open for all Americans. The good news is that this will not mean trying to win a large number of executive positions or majorities in city councils or state houses; we only need to win enough seats to stymie this latest round of Republican attacks. The bad news is that it’s still a very uphill fight, particularly given the deep American groupthink that prevents other parties from challenging the Republican/Democratic duopoly.
Changing electoral politics from within is a dirty, dirty job. In order to protect the most unfortunate Americans from having even private means of support cut off from them, though, it’s looking more and more like someone’s going to have to do it, and that someone is us.