Reclaiming Populism -- The Citizen Politics of Public Work

The populist politics needed in our time is pluralistic, gritty, practical, relational, work-centered, and rooted among the broad citizenry.
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Looking beyond the election in November, what kind of politics is needed for democratizing change?

I am convinced that "populism," understood as a politics that builds citizen power to shape our collective destiny, with little known roots in freedom struggles and democratic movements of recent decades, offers a way beyond the current gridlock.

In general use, populism today means good people versus evil elites. Thus, the Wikipedia entry on populism gives center stage to Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell's definition of populism as an ideology that "pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous 'others' who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice.'"

In this view "populism" replaces politics with Manichean rhetoric.

But there is another populism with roots around the world. This populism is a different kind of politics, a politics of civic agency. It develops the power of "the people" to shape their destiny.

In a forthcoming special issue which I edit for the journal The Good Society, an outstanding group of intellectuals and activists flesh out this populism, trace its roots in movements of the 1930s New Deal, the Black Freedom movement, and the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, and show how it can be translated into democratizing change in many settings.

I learned about populism from my father, once a reporter for The Charlotte Observer who covered textile strikes in the 1930s. My first "populist declaration" came when I was 19, working as a field secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in St. Augustine, Florida in 1964.

One day I was caught by five men and a woman who were members of the Ku Klux Klan. They accused me of being a "communist and a Yankee." I replied, "I'm no Yankee -- my family has been in the South since before the Revolution. And I'm not a communist. I'm a populist. I believe that blacks and poor whites should join to do something about the big shots who keep us divided."

For a few minutes we talked about what such a movement might look like. Then they let me go.

When he learned of the incident, Martin Luther King, head of SCLC, told me that he identified with the populist tradition and assigned me to organize poor whites. Experiences organizing white mill workers for several years in Durham, North Carolina, taught me the contagion effects of the collective power of African Americans.

Poor whites I worked with often said that blacks "had really got their act together; we should do the same thing." I also learned the generosity, intelligence, and capacities for interracial alliance building among white working people, whom my friends in the New Left at nearby Duke University wrote off as "rednecks."

Thinking about these experiences, I am sure that King had talked about populism with leaders in the movement committed to a grassroots organizing approach, many with experiences in the 1930s movements which I recently described here.

In a story well told in Charles Payne's I've Got the Light of Freedom, such activists distinguished between the politics of protest and "organizing," which he labels developmental politics. The politics of protest, including marches, Freedom Rides, and sit-ins, is much better known and it played a role. But developmental politics took place in communities across the south on a large scale, and formed the foundation for the movement.

"If people like Amzie Moore and Medgar Evers and Aaron Henry tested the limits of repression, people like Septima Clark and Ella Baker and Myles Horton tested another set of limits, the limits on the ability of the oppressed to participate in the reshaping of their own lives," he writes. Payne stresses thepolitics of this process. "Above all else [such leaders] stressed a developmental style of politics, one in which the important thing was the development of efficacy of those most affected by a problem." This meant that "whether a community achieved this or that tactical objective was likely to matter less than whether the people in it came to see themselves as having the right and the capacity to have some say-so in their own lives."

There are strong parallels in the experiences of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) in South Africa, detailed by the South African populist intellectual Xolela Mangcu in his new work, Biko: The Biography.

In the late 1960s United States, Monsignor Geno Baroni, working with others, translated the freedom movement's developmental politics into what he called "new populism," tied to community organizing.

Son of an immigrant coal mining family in Pennsylvania, Baroni became a Catholic priest in 1956, served in working-class parishes in Altoona and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and then was transferred to an inner-city African American parish in Washington. He became involved in the freedom movement, served as Catholic coordinator for the 1963 March on Washington, and led the Catholic delegation to the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March.

The enormous ferment among ethnic-minority Americans in the late 1960s led some intellectuals to move sharply to the right, forming the basis for neo-conservatism. But a key group of ethnic leaders, intellectuals, and emerging politicians forged a third way.

For these, Baroni was the pivotal figure, a courageous and inspiring organizer of a movement with immense democratic potential to bridge the growing racial divide. Representative Marcy Kaptur from Ohio and Senator Barbara Mikulski from Maryland are among those who call themselves disciples of Baroni.

Baroni's populism helped to birth the modern community organizing movement. Perhaps not surprisingly, Baroni's views bore striking resemblance to Obama's Philadelphia speech on race during the 2008 election. Populism, for Baroni, was an alternative to both "universalist liberalism," disdainful of ethnics, and neo-conservatism.

In such populism values of equality and justice combine with a commitment to people's agency and appreciation of the vast diversity of American cultures.

Such populism is a clear alternative to the politics of polarization that uses a good versus evil script, described in our earlier "Minnesota Miracle" blog. Recognizing the immense complexity -- the potential for good and bad -- of each person and each community, it does not divide the world neatly between saints and sinners.

The populist politics needed in our time is pluralistic, gritty, practical, relational, work-centered, and rooted among the broad citizenry.

And it needs to be spread of a scale that can democratize the complex hierarchies and exclusions of modern societies, where power is concentrated not only in corporate giants and the global market but also in invisible patterns of positivism -- detachment and narrowly credentialed knowledge systems -- which devalue the intelligence and capacities of everyday citizens.

How to teach and learn such citizen politics is a question at the center of democracy's future.

Harry C. Boyte is Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

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