To The Occupied Wall Street Journal founder, Arun Gupta, U.S. presidential elections are about as vapid as it gets.
"The only candidates we get to vote on (are) Coke and Pepsi," he said. "Maybe there's sometimes Diet Coke or Coke Zero, but it's still Coke and Pepsi."
He attributed this to what he called a "money primary," in which presidential candidates aren't taken seriously until they raise millions of dollars.
Gupta was speaking at a well-attended Awake Pinellas panel discussion at The Studio@620 titled, "Is This What Democracy Looks Like?" The event was held in sync with — though not a part of — the Republican National Convention.
"They've already been vetted just like the (way) marketers, analysts and specialists at Frito-Lay and Coca-Cola bring products to the market," said Gupta of mainstream candidates.
Judithanne Scourfield-McLauchlan, an associate professor of political science at USF St. Petersburg, disagreed. She worked on Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign in Oregon, where she said there were plenty of Ralph Nader supporters. She said would-be Gore supporters misguidedly opted for the Green Party candidate at a time when electing a Democrat would have made a world of difference.
"I think it would be hard to say that there's no difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush," Scourfield-McLauchlan said. "I just — I cannot accept that."
She said the same certainly goes for the upcoming election.
"There really is a difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney," she said.
The professor added that instead of voting for candidates who don't belong to major parties, progressives have to face the reality that voting for Democratic candidates — even though it's a compromise — will benefit them in the long run.
"Whether you like it or not, we have a two-party system, and moving into the Democratic Party is the only way to effect lasting change," she said.
Gupta said it's fine to think that way, but only on Election Day.
"Go ahead and vote for Obama," he said. "But that's all you should do for Obama."
And on Nov. 7? Gupta said that's a different story.
"The message is, we need to be in the streets," he said. "Go ahead and vote for Obama, but we need to be in the streets the next day. All of you were probably in the streets in 2003 denouncing the impending Iraq war. Obama is waging seven different wars right now. The guy has exerted the right to extrajudicial assassination of American citizens — something Bush and Cheney never did."
Gupta said he believes that true democracy won't exist until there is an "economic democracy." He said this concept largely entails democracy in the workplace.
To Scourfield-McLauchlan, all progressives really have is their vote, and such disenchantment with mainstream politics will make the dialogue shift even further to the right.
"To me, personally, it is a concern," she said. "To throw up your hands and say, 'I can't fight the system; I think I’ll just stay home,' it would just perpetuate the system."
Given the reported increase in registered Independents this election cycle, it remains unclear whether President Obama's policies have turned off progressives to the point where it will hurt his chances of re-election.
Pinellas County Democratic Executive Committee member Bill Bucolo said progressive voters should suck it up.
"My own feeling is that it comes down to votes," he said. "And with the billions and billions of dollars being spent on advertising and PR, and all kinds of subtle campaigning that we don’t really see ... I'm frustrated with the Democrats' inability to deal effectively with the onslaught of money and clever management of opinion."
Scourfield-McLauchlan said there is one thing the left can learn from the right.
"They have a succinct and clear message," she said.