Carl Gibson wants to turn radical street politics into real power in Washington. He talks to Crikey about his new party, the long road to recognition and the power of Twitter.
The website for the After Party, which was launched in the United States last month, shows a bright orange bird, its wings outstretched, crackling with blue flames: the bald eagle of the United States’ Great Seal recast as a rising phoenix. The text that appears superimposed above the image — “A Political Movement for a Democratic Revolution” — suggests that birds are not the only thing the After Party hopes to resurrect in the coming years. Founded by a number of Occupy activists, including Occupy.com’s lead investigative reporter Carl Gibson (@uncutcg), the After Party is seeking to breathe fresh life into American democracy itself.
“Last century’s tactics have played themselves out,” Gibson told Crikey. “It’s one thing to point fingers and call people out. That’s important, but we’ve been doing it for a while now, and nobody is taking us seriously. When they ask, ‘So what are you doing about it?’ we never have an answer.”
More importantly, though, the system has become increasingly immune to marches, occupations and other tried but tired methods. “Loud and constant protests led to the US establishing child labour laws, a woman’s right to vote and basic civil rights for black Americans,” Gibson said. “They provided Americans with the eight-hour workday, paid overtime and the weekend. The thing is, though, all of these protests happened in a time when the government was still somewhat sensitive to the needs of their constituents.”
But this, Gibson said, is no longer the case.
“Never before have we had a government so completely subservient to corporate power and so beholden to the rich,” he said. He cited a recent Princeton University study that declared the US an oligarchy, rather than a democracy. “And in a complete absence of democracy,” he said, “our protests have fallen on deaf ears.
“The one thing we haven’t tried yet is combining our protests and movement-building with the formation of a new party, and directly challenging corrupt elected officials on the ballot.”
There are certain familiar shades of the Tea Party here and Gibson is not blind to them. Indeed, all over the world, leftist groups are taking a page out of their right-wing counterparts’ playbooks by coming in off the streets, where their methods often alienate those who might otherwise be sympathetic to their arguments, in order to make electoral tilts at the halls of power. This week’s European Parliament elections are a case in point. But Gibson is also quick to point out certain fundamental differences between the Tea Party and his own.
“To the extent that demonstrations in the streets are turning into political action at the local level, getting activists onto the ballot and oust corrupt incumbents, then you could compare the After Party to the Tea Party,” he said. “But while the Tea Party originally started as a populist uprising against the bailing out of the big banks, it was very quickly co-opted by the Republican Party, corporate executives like the Koch brothers, and propaganda outlets like the Fox News Channel.”
“The reason we started the After Party is because we feel that the political realm has been unfairly monopolised by precisely such corporate special interests and big money. We aim to change that over time, starting at the local level.”
This last point is important. The After Party has no plans to field candidates at the federal level until the end of this decade at the soonest.
“The federal legislative process is entirely corrupted and broken,” Gibson said, “and there’s no way that one After Party member of Congress or the US Senate could change an entire system on their own. But there’s a multitude of actions that can be taken at the local and state level that will have a direct positive impact in people’s lives.”
This where the After Party’s strategy for building its electoral base comes in.
“Our organising strategy begins with us listening to people in the community to find out what needs aren’t being met by local governments, then teaming up with community stakeholders like small business owners and churches to co-ordinate mass mobilisations of mutual aid to meet these needs,” Gibson said. “If a community needs access to healthcare, we’ll reach out to volunteer healthcare providers and organise a free healthcare clinic, similar to the clinics that sprung up all over the US during the Affordable Care Act debate. If a community needs jobs, we’ll work with it to establish time banks like those in Montpelier, Vermont, where services are traded as currency and people have less of a need for money as a result.”
The party will be able to judge the success of such grassroots actions when it contests its first spate of local elections two years from now. “We’ll run candidates for city council, mayor, county board and county sheriff based on our proven record of community service,” Gibson said. “The social movement aspect of the After Party is critical to the political element. Nobody would have any reason to vote for us if we weren’t actually out there helping our communities.”
Gibson admitted that some of his comrades within the Occupy movement might cock an eyebrow at the After Party’s flirtation with electoral politics.
“Occupy was a torch carried by a lot of people,” he said, “including anarchists who don’t believe in electoral politics. There will always be some factions who don’t believe in playing the inside game. We sometimes need a family therapist so the disagreements between revolutionaries and reformers in the movement don’t get too heated.
“But I think we need revolutionaries and reformers equally,” he said. “The revolutionaries provide the inspirational vision of what we want our ideal society to look like and the reformers achieve the small wins that add up to revolutionary success in the long-term.”
*More of Carl Gibson’s views on Twitter and the powerless of Congress on the website …
On Twitter’s benefits and shortcomings …
Twitter is a critical resource for me to find out what’s going on in the world, in real-time, from the people on the ground seeing it first-hand. My Twitter feed is like a morning newspaper that I can talk to, and that talks back to me. I can follow all my favourite journalists and news organisations as well as people who are in locations where a lot of news breaks regularly, who tweet often and interact with followers.
On the other hand, Twitter and other real-time information sources often get things wrong in AN attempt to break new stories. The Boston Marathon bombing and the follow-up on social media during the manhunt was a great example of how not to use social media. On Reddit, for example, they thought the bomber was a student who had gone missing, and that idea got a lot of traction before it was discovered he wasn’t the perpetrator. The damage to both that missing student’s family and to Redditors’ credibility as newshounds was greatly damaged. I’d like to see more fact-checking before we tweet and share so that social media can become a more credible source of information. That’s the key to breaking free of corporate media’s stranglehold on the public.
We also spend way too much time proselytising about the mundane on social media. Too often the top trends on Twitter are related to Justin Bieber, One Direction and big plot twists on TV shows rather than critical information that people need to know. One example, on the day of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, which allowed even more money to infect US politics, the hashtag #McCutcheon was trending. But instead of people talking about the court decision, they were talking about a baseball player with the same name. That’s the danger of giving the average person the power to have a microphone to the world. Sometimes average people’s interests are really fucking mundane.
On the powerlessness of Congress …
Congress actually has no power. All the political power in the US is wielded by oligarchs acting behind the curtains. A congressman or senator will never vote against the interests of their biggest donors, but doesn’t give a second thought to voting against what their constituents need.
For example, Mitch McConnell, Republican leader of the US Senate from my home state of Kentucky, is counting on his bottomless campaign war chest to drown out his opposition with a flurry of corporate-sponsored attack ads and mudslinging. It doesn’t matter that he’s consistently sided with his benefactors over Kentuckians. If he wins the money race, he’ll likely win the political race.
The real revolution in this country is already underway, and it’s happening in the form of the growing movement to get money out of politics. Ninety-six per cent of Americans agree that the corrupting influence of money in politics needs to be addressed, and that includes both Democrats and Republicans. There’s no one issue that can be addressed until the fat wallets of oligarchs are impotent in politics, and until there’s a crowbar in the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington.
At the same time that the After Party runs candidates for local office in 2016, we’ll also be joining on-the-ground efforts in key presidential primary states, making high-profile candidates address the issue of money in politics and rendering the entire 2016 presidential election about it.
On the challenges of setting up a political party …
It’s cumbersome to start a political party in the US. To become an officially recognised 527-classified political organisation by the Internal Revenue Service, you need to provide extensive documentation and file quarterly reports to the Federal Election Commission, making sure to list all contributions along with contributor information. Even the most minor of slip-ups can result in a serious penalty, so we have to be meticulous in our planning. It’s hard work, but so is fundamentally changing the people’s relationship with their government. We didn’t do this because it would be easy, but because it needed to be done.