Fri, 10/02/2009 - 22:32 — GPP
Ever since the teabaggers hit DC on Labor Day weekend there’s been a lot of talk about populism. With a few notable exceptions (like Frank Rich), commentators have been equating ‘populism’ with nativism, ignorance and unbridled rage. To be sure, this is one face of populism, and it isn’t pretty. But, there are other strands of populism that are more democratic and inclusive, strands that grow from a sense of justice in both economic and social spheres. If we don’t figure out how to tap justice-oriented populism, progress in healthcare, financial re-regulation, neighborhood revitalization, fair and affordable housing, greener energy policy and labor law reforms may be stalled indefinitely.
First, let’s take a look at the dark side: populism that flows in the direction of authoritarianism. US history is chock full of these kinds of populist movements, usually fanned by organized forces that have something to gain from tapping peoples’ fears of change, and of the ‘other.’ Consider the ‘know-nothings’ of the 1850s. They were white Protestants who feared Irish Catholic immigrants. Their organizing efforts were fed by rumors and lies about immigrants that sound all-too-familiar today.
The know-nothing legacy was revived during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, when people who should have been allies in support of economic justice for white and African American workers and farmers were divided against each other. The prevailing forces won popular support for segregation and immigration quotas. And racist, white-supremacist populism has run throughout our history, justifying slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, states’ rights (an excuse to reject federal action on behalf of African Americans), resistance to Affirmative Action, discriminatory housing and lending practices, attacks on social services, discriminatory sentencing guidelines.
Who gains from today's authoritarian populism? This decade we’ve seen a ‘plutocratic boom” (a term coined by economist Laurence Katz, quoted by Timothy Egan), brought about by a regulation-free economy and $1.3 trillion in tax breaks for the wealthy. While it has been a great ride for the rich, this decade has brought the rest of us rising costs of living, stagnant wages, a housing crisis, increased poverty levels and record-breaking levels of unemployment.
The ugly side of populism tends to rally against activist government. Anything government does to extend democracy, to rein in corporate power and provide for the welfare of all is seen as tyranny against the ‘common man.’ Instead of demanding accountabilty and redress from Wall Street and Corporate America, the tea-party foot-soldiers demonize the current President and 'big government.' Meanwhile, their corporate sponsors feel confident they can beat back healthcare, energy and regulatory reforms. The Right appeals to populism and the ‘common man’ (or ‘working stiff’) whenever there is an ideological void. We must fill the void.
But let’s not forget the justice-oriented faces of populism that also run through our history. The populist movement of the late 19th century paved the way for major anti-trust reforms. The movements that supported reforms during the New Deal became part of the infrastructure that sustained civil rights and the War on Poverty in the 1960s. The many liberation movements that have changed our country for the better had populist roots.
Note to President Obama: listen to Paul Krugman and embrace your inner populist. Lead the way on re-regulating Wall Street. And tell us why it is the democratic-populist thing to do. Note to progressives: Reclaim the populist mantle ---the progressive, democratic and inclusive populism that respects peoples’ lived experiences, rejects appeals to racism and stands up to immigrant-bashing. We are for radically democratic, inclusive and progressive populism. And this should be our moment.
We may soon have a ‘populist moment’ in Chicago, when the bankers come to town for the American Bankers Association convention. Over 5000 community leaders, workers, farmers, clergy and anti-poverty activists are planning to let the bankers know that we aim to hold them accountable. We also will let our elected officials know that we expect them to act in the people’s interests and enact financial reform now. Check out the Showdown in Chicago website and plan to be there, October 25-27.