A Modern Populist Movement

Is the "only potent grassroots" populist movement on the right? Is populism for Democrats a dead strategy? Being a student of history, and an active participant in movement politics right now, I think it is important to make a few points here.
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The lengths to which pundits, analysts, and establishment political leaders have always gone to avoid using dreaded populism in their political strategies for Democrats has always been remarkable to me. From Republicans since Richard Nixon, appeals to a moralist and angry middle class are all politically brilliant, but Democrats, so it is said, should avoid it as a political tactic because it doesn't work. When Lee Atwater observes that "the swing vote in every Presidential election is populist in nature," he is a genius. When Democrats start sounding like populists, we are told it just doesn't work.

From the DLC to the New Democrats to the folks at Third Way to columnists like David Broder and David Brooks to authors and analysts like Matt Bai, the advice is to be careful about seeming too angry and too anti-business. Some argue that a democratic, progressive populism has never worked in American politics, that it was at its highest point under William Jennings Bryan and he was still a loser. Some will deign to admit that FDR showed a populist streak, but then say that no one else with a similar message has won a Presidential election. The more thoughtful of these analysts, such as Bai, point to demographic and economic changes as the reason. Bai believes that "the only potent grass-roots movement to emerge from this moment of dissatisfaction with America's economic elite exists not in support of the president or his party, but far to the right instead, in the form of the so-called Tea Party rebellions that are injecting new energy into the Republican cause." He goes on to argue:

But there is something more fundamental going on here, too, an underlying shift in the meaning of American populism. Most Democrats, after all, persist in embracing populism as it existed in the early part of the last century -- that is, strictly as a function of economic inequality. In this worldview, the oppressed are the poor, and the oppressors are the corporate interests who exploit them.

That made sense 75 years ago, when a relatively small number of corporations -- oil and coal companies, steel producers, car makers -- controlled a vast segment of the work force and when government was a comparatively anemic enterprise. In recent decades, however, as technology has reshaped the economy, more and more Americans have gone to work for smaller or more decentralized employers, or even for themselves, while government has exploded in size and influence. (It's not incidental that the old manufacturing unions, like the autoworkers and steelworkers, have been eclipsed in membership and political influence by those that represent large numbers of government workers.)

Since this transformation took place, a succession of liberal politicians -- Jesse Jackson, Jerry Brown, John Edwards -- have tried to run for president on a traditionally populist, anti-corporate platform, with little success. That is because today's only viable brand of populism, the same strain that Ross Perot expertly tapped as an independent presidential candidate in 1992, is not principally about the struggling worker versus his corporate master. It is about the individual versus the institution -- not only business, but also government and large media and elite universities, too.

And yet, and yet...

We just saw a financial reform bill get steadily better over a two-week debate on the floor of the Senate, because politicians lived in mortal fear of appearing to kow-tow to the big banks. We just saw a health care debate where the only time Democrats got any message traction at all was in a frontal assault on the insurance industry. We've seen a massive outpouring of anger at BP over the oil spill, with Republicans scurrying for cover when their ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee apologized to BP over Obama's mistreatment of them. We've seen a spring of big rallies all over the country against the big banks -- in Chicago, in San Francisco, in Denver, in Kansas City, in North Carolina, on Wall Street itself and on K Street in Washington, DC.

Is the "only potent grassroots" populist movement on the right? Is populism for Democrats a dead strategy?

Being a student of history, and an active participant in movement politics right now, I think it is important to make a few points here.

First, it's important to note that a clear, vibrant form of progressive populism has been a part of the American political debate from the very beginning, and continues to win its share of elections. Tom Paine's entire political project was a celebration of the working class and their economic rights in a democratic society. Thomas Jefferson's guiding goal in politics was to fight on behalf of the little guy, the small farmers and workers who populated the countryside and fought against the big city merchants and bankers. Andrew Jackson came to power railing against wealthy bankers and insider deals. It wasn't just William Jennings Bryan in the 1890s: a full-throated fight on behalf of workers and small farmers has been a part of our political debate from day one until today.

In modern times, too, progressive populism has not been absent as a winning theme in our politics. FDR, of course, famously won by "welcoming [the wealthy's] hatred." Harry Truman scored the biggest upset in American political history running a 100% populist campaign, railing in his stump speeches against "a return of the Wall Street economic dictatorship." LBJ and Sam Rayburn were old-school Texas populists who sounded more like Jim Hightower than most modern politicians. Bill Clinton, whose campaign manifesto was titled Putting People First, was full of old-school economic populism ("helping those who work hard and play by the rules", "forcing the very wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes, closing corporate tax loopholes...") and beat Paul "I'm not Santa Claus" Tsongas in the primary by emphasizing his support of Social Security and other government programs. Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 by campaigning on behalf of the "people instead of the powerful". A Democratic populist streak has remained as a part of successful campaigns up until the present day.

But let me take a moment to address the specific populist campaigns Bai raised. Let's take the candidates he mentioned in order. Jesse Jackson was a confrontational, highly controversial (including within his own civil rights community) movement preacher who had never run for political office before he ran for President in 1984 and 1988. Most of the establishment black leaders endorsed Mondale, and Jesse's overwhelming numbers among black voters surprised everyone in 1984. In 1988, he expanded on that base, finishing in double digits in virtually all-white Iowa in the same caucus with Midwesterners running strong populist campaigns, Dick Gephardt and Paul Simon (who I worked for), finished 1st and 2nd. Jesse then went on to win several more primaries and caucuses before outlasting every other candidate besides the nominee Mike Dukakis, and finishing a solid second in votes and delegates in the primary process. Remember, this was a generation ago, and Jesse -- unlike Obama 20 years later -- was culturally identified as a quintessentially old school black minister. The fact that an extremely underfunded candidate like Jackson was able to win so many white working-class votes a mere 20 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. was greeted with riots in northern cities like Chicago is pretty remarkable.

Jerry Brown is a very odd guy to throw in this mix. He ran for President three times, the first two as the funky, unconventional governor of California with a mix of items on his platform that could hardly called conventional Democratic populism. I'm guessing Bai is referring to Brown's last run for President, where he did run as an outsider and had some progressive things he was pushing for, but also advocated some highly unprogressive ideas like a tax plan that included a flat tax and a value-added tax, written for him by Reagan adviser and supply-side guru Arthur Laffer. Accepting no money except contributions under $100, Brown was overwhelmingly outspent, and was considered very much of a fringe candidate, but still won upset victories in seven states, and was a threat to Clinton before fading at the end of the race. Like Jackson in 1988, his votes won to money raised ratio was by far the best of any candidate in the race.

Then there's John Edwards. In the 2004 race, Edwards started as a DLCer, and had a somewhat muddled identity as a little-known (and very inexperienced) candidate in the middle of the race. But he soon honed his son-of-a-mill-worker, two Americas message, and surged dramatically in the last couple of weeks of the campaign -- polls had him at 5% a couple of weeks before the caucus date, and he finished at 32%, just six points back of John Kerry. And as my old friend Michael Whouley, who was working for Kerry, told me a few weeks later, "Iowa was everything." From that point on, the Iowa momentum carried Kerry to the primary victory, although Edwards stayed close for many weeks after with far less money. But if Edwards had surged just a little bit higher in Iowa, he would have been the nominee.

And speaking of far less money, Edwards was utterly swamped by both the money and media attention of the Barack-Hillary showdown four years later, yet ended up beating Hillary for second place in the Iowa caucuses with his populist message. No one not named Hillary or Barack had a chance in 2008, but again, a deeply underfunded, deeply flawed populist candidate performed better than he should have. And speaking of Hillary, after she finally rejected Mark Penn's idiot "this is not a change election" advice, and morphed into a populist battler for the working class, she started beating Obama in a bunch of the big primary states. It was too late for her to win by that point, but she once again showed the power of the basic message.

Finally, let's move to Perot, Bai's version of a successful populist focused not on an anti-corporate populism but on the federal deficit. The first thing to note, as someone who was watching the daily tracking numbers every day in that election from the Clinton war room in Little Rock, is that Perot's appeal had at least as much to do with his strong anti-NAFTA position as it did with his deficit positioning. A second thing: unlike all of the above candidates, Perot spent more than $70 million in a race he was in for only a few weeks (he got back in on October 1), vastly outspending Clinton and Bush in ad money down the stretch. I remember the polling well on that race: contrary to conventional wisdom, Perot voters were evenly split among those who would have voted for Bush and Clinton had he not been in the race (along with a fair share who would not have voted at all). Perot's vote was mostly white, mostly working-class, more male than female, and most of it was classic protest vote: when we asked people how they would vote if the election were too close to call, his vote got shaved by two-thirds.

So Bai thinks of a protest vote third-party candidate with a massive amount of money to boost his numbers as a more successful candidate than a series of vastly outspent candidates who outperformed expectations, and he chooses to ignore Perot's other main issue besides deficits -- NAFTA -- which was as traditionally populist an issue as you can get. Sounds to me like a classic establishment pundit looking for reasons to dismiss progressive populism.

What Bai and other pundits also choose to ignore are examples of Democratic success with the populist message. As I wrote above, Bill Clinton's 1992 Putting People First message was actually very populist in nature: taxes on the wealthy, close corporate loopholes, health care for all, clean up the campaign finance system, better wages for workers, etc. He gave some important nods to moderate voters, like his welfare reform ads, but he ran and won on bread-and-butter populism.

Eight years later, Gore won 500,000 more popular votes (and almost certainly won Florida absent the disenfranchisement of black voters and the ballot problems in a couple of counties) on his campaign to put the people over the powerful. In fact, if you look at the last 20 years of Presidential politics, the two most populist general election candidates (Clinton '92 and Gore 2000) both won the popular vote, and the history of Democratic primaries is such that the candidates with the most populist messages (Jackson '88, Gephardt '88, Brown '92, Edwards '04/'08, Hillary post-Penn) all exceeded expectations and vastly over-performed the usual money to votes ratio for every other candidate.

I'll add one other note here, a non-Presidential postscript. With the exception of four old-school progressive populists from the Northeast (Ted Kennedy, Bernie Sanders, Sheldon Whitehouse, Eliot Spitzer), most of the statewide politicians over the last 20 years that have run the strongest progressive populist campaigns -- Byron Dorgan in North Dakota, Tom Harkin in Iowa, Paul Wellstone and later Al Franken in Minnesota, Brian Schweitzer and Jon Tester in Montana, Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, Jeff Merkley in Oregon, Jim Webb in Virginia -- have come from swing or even lean -- GOP states. The Senators and Governors from swing-red states above, come from every region in the country, and won their races against mostly well-funded and relatively strong candidates. To make the claim that progressive populism can't or doesn't work in modern American politics, in swing or even red states, is simply wrong.

One final point before I leave Mr. Bai, this one on economics. Bai made the point, not backed up by any numbers, that the reason progressive populism was failing was because our economic system had changed. And it has gone through a lot of transformation, it is true. It is certainly true that because of Social Security, Medicare, and other safety net programs put in place by FDR, LBJ, and Clinton, there is less abject poverty than there was in the 1930s. But the concentration of wealth and the gap between CEOs and workers is actually worse. The income stagnation for middle-class families over the last four decades compared to the massive gains in wealth for the top 1% make "times have changed, workers have less reason to be upset about income inequality" arguments seem pretty hollow. The economic pain felt by middle-class Americans right now in this jobless "recovery" is far greater than elite pundits in DC or NYC realize. The anger voters are feeling at the banks and other economic elites is real: you can check any polling data or focus group to find out.

So where does that leave us? If Bai and his fellow establishment pundits are wrong about whether progressive populism could be successful in the modern era, what about the claim that the tea parties are the only ones with a potent grassroots movement? I frankly think the jury is still out on this one. It is ironic, but not the least bit surprising, that it's big corporate money and elite media coverage that has fueled the growth of the tea party movement, but even so, I am forced to admit that they have created a movement moment of sorts, and achieved some real successes. Can the anger we know is out there toward Wall Street, BP, the health insurance companies, etc. be catalyzed into a real movement?

There are some important efforts out there making the attempt to spark something:

  • MoveOn.org has launched a major new campaign around their Fight Washington Corruption Pledge. They are asking candidates and members of Congress to sign onto a platform that includes public financing of campaigns, major lobbying reform, and a Constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision. Huge numbers of their members, other important groups, and increasing numbers of politicians are signing on.

  • National People's Action, the Pico national network, and SEIU have begun working together to organize people around the country to take on the big banks and their terrible practices that are ripping the hearts out of communities. They have already organized dozens of big and small actions going after banks and bank executives around the country, and have big plans going forward on the foreclosure issue and on getting local governments and other institutions to move their money out of the biggest banks.
  • NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, SEIU 1199, the AFL-CIO, PowerPAC and many other organizations have come together to organize something called One Nation, a national effort to engage low-income folks, people of color, youth, and women in promoting a progressive economic agenda. The organizing plan includes community meetings throughout the summer, a march on Washington, and a massive get out the vote drive.
  • Full disclosure: I have been working with all of these efforts in one way or another, officially or unofficially.

    All of these efforts -- plus the AFL-CIO's organizing work, the progressive netroots, and all the individual groups out there working to taking on corporate power: is it a movement? I guess it depends on how you define it. I don't think we have created enough of a spark yet, but I think the potential is clearly there for combustion. The anger at what corporate special interests have done to the American economy and the American people is real: the question is where it can be taken. I think all of the groups and leaders working on these campaigns need to keep talking to each other, and figuring out how they can spark each other's efforts.

    One of the most important questions in creating a movement is how do the politicians react to it. The tea party has shown itself strong enough to force Republican politicians far to the right. The question for Democrats in this ugly year is how they respond to the anger in the electorate. The cautious, conventional wisdom response (as I have written about) is to move to the right as well. That's what many Democrats tried to do in other Republican tide years like 1994 and 2002, a strategy which mostly failed. I believe that Democrats' only hope is to partner with the still under-the-surface progressive populist movement that is building out there, to join with the people who are angry with Wall Street, big oil, and the big insurance companies. Mark Critz survived his special election in Pennsylvania by riding the populist tide on trade and jobs, and Blanche Lincoln turned the tide on her primary by taking on the big banks in the derivatives fight. A message of fighting for middle-class folks is the only thing, in my view, that gives Democrats a shot this year.

    What the inside-the-Beltway punditry never gets is how Middle America defines "the center" of the political debate. In DC, being a centrist means being in the middle between the liberals and the far-right wing Republicans on issues that matter to the legion of corporate lobbyists that tend to run this town. In Middle America, being in the center means being the one who will fight for working people. In DC, Sherrod Brown and Brian Schweitzer are crazy liberals. Back home, in places like Ohio and Montana, they're just politicians who seem like they are on the people's side.

    That's the center ground on which Democrats need to stand in this election year. They will lose corporate contributions as a result (it's not an accident that so many of the populist candidates discussed above were underfunded), but it's their one chance of identifying with the real pain and anger that people outside of DC are feeling. Reflecting that pain, reflecting that anger, and fighting for regular people is the way to win this year.

    Cross-posted on my home blog, OpenLeft.com, where you can read all of my other writing.

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