Still too frequently, elite opinion takes a dismissive and hostile stance towards Occupy Wall Street, but this is only to be expected, at least in corporate media whose institutional success rests on the status quo. But even in other corners of the media sometimes thought of as more open to dissent and alternative perspectives, assessments of the movement have often been lukewarm to stridently aggressive even while the same commentators and their organizations have the opposite reaction toward the Arab Spring. In a Canadian context, members of the public broadcaster's flagship debate panel At Issue said that the movement had mostly failed, though panelist Allan Gregg has previously given illuminating and fair-minded interviews of supporters Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges. More troubling was the now infamous moment on Canada's version of Hannity and Colmes, wherein Hedges was rudely dismissed as a "left-wing nutbar" - the incident sparked a record number of complaints and was later found to be a breach of policy by the broadcaster's ombudsman.
But even symbolic acts of disobedience have gone insufficiently defended by those who should be part of the solution. Canadian Senate page Bridgette DePape earned worldwide attention for her seconds-long disruption of the 2011 throne speech, but even the leader of Canada's left-most political party and the House's sole Green MP ended up voicing regrets about the supposed inappropriateness of her actions. But far from being an extreme tactic that should be viewed as illegitimate, DePape's actions are in fact a perfectly reasonable kind of direct action, if only because Canadians have no real recourse outside of the electoral system: though many American states allow for representative recall, only the province of British Columbia has this important mechanism that should be a frequently-used tool at every level of government. But beyond that, election results and even legislation should be openly challenged whenever they are undemocratic - Canada's opposition parties gained sixty percent of the votes in the last election but a minority of seats - and the extremism of neoliberal agendas is rightly challenged through nonviolent direct action, in part because extreme measures necessitate direct change outside of voting.
While I believe people should not be slaves to electoralism, the outright rejection of it has costs that are too high to bear. It is true that organizing in the service of lesser evils diverts energy from other concerns, but in complex systems of power "small differences can translate into large outcomes." This is why Bill Maher's open call for the movement to enter the electoral system is not necessarily wrong - but instead of latching onto the Democratic party as a replacement for the Progressive Caucus, even a small cadre of independent representatives in strategically chosen races could make a disproportionately immense difference for OWS's reach and visibility. The high cost of anti-electoralism and non-strategic voting is also why progressive forces in France could not afford to retain the UMP's majority; why more Greek voters for the KKE and Democratic Left should have switched to Syriza; and why even races that are lacking in integrity can remain important. Concurrently, neither should organizing around electoral politics exaggerate its effectiveness or integrity: Hedges is right to condemn the system as corrupt, but to condemn Democrats at every turn, intended in the service of good-hearted Greens or a focus away from voting, is a recipe for years of brutal domination by Republicans.
Finally, elections in the Middle East are sometimes rightly condemned as undemocratic charades that are only the most minimal reflection of the public will. But elections in the West, most particularly in the United States, routinely feature barriers to entry and merit that also severely distort popular opinion, whether in the structural flaws of voting systems, the unfettered purchase of elections now made more direct through Citizens United or the more basic organization of politics by strong economic actors that existed long before. All are a blight on contemporary life which, if its public aspects are to be regarded with care and seriousness, should be freely contested, and not only within or outside the fencing of the formal political arena.By Cory Collins, Aslan Media Columnist