Noam Scheiber was out with a great new piece last week contrasting Elizabeth Warren's political message and priorities with New York City Mayor's Bill de Blasio, where he described Warren's populism as the "anti-government left," an intriguing phrase. While I generally agree with the article, as I relate below, I would frame things differently. Also out was a thoughtful new article in The Democratic Strategist by Andrew Levison on how a successful populist strategy requires more than just economic issues. A series of big events in the last couple of years has prompted a lot of discussion in Democratic circles and the media about the new wave of populism that is building: Obama using Bain-bashing populism to win reelection in a tough economy, Warren's victory in 2012, the election of Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, the reelection of Sherrod Brown in Ohio, the election of de Blasio and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, the emergence of Warren as a powerful new iconic leader for progressives, and the going down in flames of Larry Summers as a potential Fed Chair nominee. As someone who has been a progressive populist my entire career, and who believes it can be a winning political formula in purple and even red states as well as blue ones, this is an exciting time, and I do believe this may become our moment if our movement creates a successful message and strategy. But the challenges that have kept progressive populists from winning presidential elections and creating a lasting majority movement are still there, and those of us who want to pursue this path need to be aware of them and have a strategy for dealing with them. This blog post lays out the challenges I think we have to overcome, and a strategy for doing so.
Let me say at the outset that I call this blog post "Winning Warren-Style" not because she is necessarily following all of the strategy I lay out below. She is setting her own course, and while I respect her and am inspired by the kind of politics she is pursuing, the ideas in this piece are the course I believe we should follow, not the course I think she is following. However, because Warren is inspiring a new generation of progressive populist activism and creating an iconic brand and a way of framing issues that is fresh and exciting, I think Warren has already become the leader of a new kind of modern populism that will grow into a bigger movement.
But before discussing that new movement, let's go back and look at the history of the last half-century. It was 50 years ago that the New Deal era reached its pinnacle of political power and success, when LBJ won his overwhelming landslide victory in 1964. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were constructing a politics that had great potential for uniting working-class whites and blacks into a powerful political coalition. But 1964 would be the last time a full-throated progressive populist on economic issues won the presidency. The Vietnam War broke apart the progressive coalition, and King and Kennedy were dead by assassins' bullets four years later. Even though plenty of populists have won big competitive races in purple states many times since then, and even though populists have tended to way outperform the amount of money that has been raised in presidential politics, there are some deeply entrenched reasons that Democratic populists (as opposed to the faux-populists in the Republican Party) have failed to win national elections in that time. Here are the four biggest barriers to a populist progressive president and Congress:
- The money thing. Let's start with the most obvious point, which is the fact that big-money special interests don't like progressive populists, and those big-money types have a huge sway over the political process. It's not just that they don't give to populists, and do give a huge amount to their opponents, historically meaning that the kind of candidates people like me support are way outspent. That is just one part of the distortion that big money makes in our political system. There is also the huge influence, and control through actual ownership or advertising dollars, that big-money corporate interests plays with the journalistic coverage of the campaign. And there is the fact, to which I can directly attest from years of conversations on campaigns, that, a great many times, Democrats distort, mute, and muffle a populist message -- even if it polls well, which is usually does -- because of fears about not being able to raise enough money from the business interests if they are too open in their populism.
I would add another note here as well. One of the problems the entire Democratic party has suffered from since the 1970s is that the power of big money has made the party, even in the years we controlled both Congress and the presidency, look weak or worse policy-wise in terms of actually delivering tangible benefits for working families. We couldn't pass labor law reform or health care in the 1970s, but we did deregulate a bunch of industries (like oil companies, airlines, trucking) and let them run roughshod over people. We couldn't pass health care reform in the 1990s, but we did pass NAFTA and banking deregulation, things that ended up badly hurting the economic standing of most Americans. When we did pass health care reform and financial reform in 2010, that was good, but we made enough compromises that seriously weakened those bills' ability to help make tangible improvements for most Americans, lessening in a big way the political credit that we could have gotten for the legislation.
As I indicated above, some of the sting of these four big obstacles is lessening over time. The same demographic changes that helped a Democrat like Barack Obama win the presidency will help more genuinely populist progressive do the same. And with young people growing up in the worst economic times, with the worst economic inequality, since the Great Depression of the 1930s, there are going to be a lot more voters open to really transformative economic changes that progressives would want to make. But all four of these problems remain real and significant barriers to true progressive populist either winning at the presidential level or adding dramatically to their numbers in Congress. So the question is: How do we build a populism that can overcome these imposing barriers?
Here's the formula that can win over the long term:
- Dealing directly and honestly with the problems in government. I think Scheiber frames things incorrectly: It's not that the Warren-style progressivism is anti-government. But it isn't automatically pro-government either. What populist progressives are saying is that we care less about defending and promoting government at all costs than about fighting over whose side is government going to be on: the big, wealthy, entrenched powers that be, or the everyday Americans who are trying to give their families a decent life and a better future -- the people who, in Bill Clinton's classic phrase, "work hard and play by the rules." What we want is to lessen the power and corruption of big money in the political system so that the rest of us have chance at, as Warren likes to put it, a level playing field. We acknowledge that there is waste in government spending but assert that the waste comes far more from well-connected federal contractors and big-money lobbyists cutting sweetheart deals than it does from some poor or middle-income person getting something they don't deserve from government. We believe that there needs to be a regulatory cop on the beat, but we know all too well that it is easy for regulators to be bought off by the big businesses they oversee, so we know that the regulators need oversight as well.
A pro-small-business, pro-entrepreneurism, anti-big-business populism is good policy and even better politics. If we make as one of our cornerstone parts of our economic platform the championing of small business as they compete with the biggest businesses, that goes a long way toward overcoming the third barrier to populist success I discussed above. Americans have a very high regard for small business in general -- it is arguably the most respected institution in our society. Progressives should be their strong and consistent champion.
This is where we should look back to King and Bobby Kennedy. They believed wholeheartedly in economic populism and spoke eloquently about it, but at the heart of their narrative was a story about an interconnected American community where respect for everyone's human dignity was at the center of our national identity. I think an emphasis on an American community that looks out for all of us also gives us a chance to talk about progressive institutions that are part of civil society. This version of progressivism doesn't rely on government to take care of everything: We believe in organizing labor unions, consumer watchdog groups, community organizations, food co-ops, online groups, and other civic institutions that fight the good fight to make society a better place. And we use the marketplace to reward the businesses who are good corporate citizens and punish those who pollute, exploit their workers, or otherwise abuse us. Government has an important role in this view of the world, but it is not the only thing progressives want to rely on in terms of improving the lives of our families and fellow citizens.
A populism that does all these things, combined with the demographic and generational changes that are trending our way, can build a strong and long-term national majority. We have to confront the problems with our government directly -- the corruption because of big-money special interests, and the waste and dysfunction caused by that corruption. We have to become the champion of the small businesses that are trying to compete with the massive companies that dominate their sectors of the economy. We have to promote an optimistic vision of American community and build progressive institutions that will fight the good fight for all of us, contrasting our vision of America with the cruelty from the other side. And we have to always ask politicians the question: Which side are you on -- that of the 99 percent, or that of the wealthiest and most powerful at the very top of the economic pyramid?
I believe that this kind of populism in combination with shifting demographics go a very long way toward solving the three obstacles to progressive populism winning at the national level. The money thing remains, but in fact Elizabeth Warren's 2012 campaign demonstrated that we have come a long way toward solving that problem, as her combination of online contributions and excited contributions from progressives all over the country meant that she outraised a corporate-backed incumbent with a huge fundraising head start on her. The other side will always have more money overall, but a candidate with a strong populist message can now compete in terms of campaign money far more than in the past.
So what does a new populist moment and movement, capable of winning national elections, mean for the 2016 presidential race? It is very hard to know how it will play out -- I keep reminding people who haven't been through as many presidential races as I have that presidential politics is very unpredictable. I absolutely take Warren at her word that she isn't going to make a presidential run, and it may be that Hillary has an easier time against not much opposition for the nomination. But I strongly suspect that even if Hillary's path to being the Democratic nominee is relatively easy, because the electorate has changed and gotten more populist, a politician as smart she is will too, so we may see the emergence -- like we did at the end of the 2008 nomination fight -- of a very populist Hillary. And if she becomes president, I believe a more aggressively populist version of progressivism will be able to do better at holding her accountable than it has with Obama these last several years. In the meantime, I think this populist moment is going to see more and more Warren-style candidates at all levels that emerge, excite people, and get elected.
This country has had two major progressive populist moments in its history -- around the turn of the last century, and the New Deal era. If we populists play things right, we might be on the verge of getting a third. We can do it if our movement is smart and keeps faithfully to our central mission: fighting the powers that be.