Your Inner Populist

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I’m a populist. I suspect you’re one, as well. We average citizens are populists when we need to be, when the red flags are waved, when it becomes apparent that we’d better do something soon or reap the whirlwind.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a populist is one that adopts “a political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite.”

Yep, that’d be us.

Here are reads on the “new” populism. The first is from Jim Hightower, sincere populist of the First Water. The next two, and the link, are excellent analysis from Richard Escow, having to do with the Campaign for America’s Future May conference on populism. The last is a take-down of Escow’s articles for faux-populist rhetoric, as well as his group as a shill for establishment Dems. It’s hostile and cynical, which is ok with me as long as it tells the truth as the author sees it. I don’t see it quite that way, but he makes a few good points.

Still, if we are going to move into a “new” era, see things with “new” eyes, we have to give up this kind of polarization. I find all these reads helpful and encouraging. Hope you do too.


Jim Hightower: Has the United States Gone Crazy?
Wednesday, 28 May 2014

It might appear that the U-S-of-A has gone bonkers. So let me clear up any confusion that you might have: Yes, it has!

Yet, it hasn’t. More on that in a moment.

First, though — whether looking at the “tea party” congress critters who’ve swerved our nation’s political debate to the hard right, or at the peacocks of Wall Street who continue to preen and profit atop the wreckage they’ve made of our real economy — it’s plain to see that America is suffering a pestilence of nuts and narcissists in high places. These “leaders” are hell bent to enthrone themselves and their ilk as the potentates of our economic, governmental and social systems, and they are aggressively trying to snuff out the light of egalitarianism that historically has been our society’s unifying force.

Bill Moyers, America’s most public-spirited journalist, summarized the state of or nation in these terms: “The delusion is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe to sit at the seat of power.” Symptoms of this national insanity include these examples:

— We can’t even keep the doors of our government open. In October of last year, Washington’s tea party Republican faction, unable to win the budget cuts it had demanded, threw a procedural fit to get what its acolytes wanted. Their stunt literally shut down the nation’s government for 16 days and bled $24 billion from the U.S. economy. They won nothing except the widespread public scorn they earned for being self-aggrandizing political fools.

— Lloyd Blankfein, bankster-in-chief of Goldman Sachs, runs a financial casino that has bilked its own customers, been so reckless that it took a $10 billion taxpayer bailout to keep it afloat and lobbied furiously to kill regulatory reforms that would’ve reined in its ongoing destructiveness. So has this wrongdoer faced prosecution and jail? Ha! Blankfein continues to reign, retaining his CEOship at Goldman and hauling in $23 million last year in personal pay.

— A narrow, five-man majority of the U.S. Supreme Court has decreed that corporations are “persons” with the right to spend unlimited sums of their shareholders’ money to elect or defeat whomever they want — and to do so secretly.

This year, in McCutcheon v. FEC, the Court also overturned the campaign finance rules limiting individual’s contributions on aggregate federal campaign contributions — thus enthroning a tiny elite as America’s ruling electoral power.

— Big Money’s control of politics gives it control of public policy. Thus long-term joblessness and underemployment rage on unabated, middle-class income is plummeting, the majority is finding upward mobility roped off, labor unions are being systematically disempowered and our social safety net is being shredded.

— From retail workers to adjunct college professors, the new normal for workaday people is poverty-wage, part-time, temporary, no-benefit employment. At McDonald’s, the world’s biggest burger chain with 860,000 U.S. workers and $5.5 billion in profits, typical pay is only $8.20 an hour and “full-time” jobs amount to only 30 hours a week. McDonald’s business plan: Shift the bulk of its labor costs to taxpayers and workers themselves. The top executives calculate that employees will subsidize their gross underpayment by finding second jobs, and then get health care from emergency rooms and go to welfare offices for food and other basic needs.

All this (and more) explains the popularity in America of this bumper sticker: “Where are we going? And what am I doing in this hand basket?”

Most people know that things are screwy, that this is not the America that’s supposed to be. And therein lies the good news: The USA hasn’t gone crazy — its leaders have, and they can be changed.

In opinion polls, tea party Republicans are becoming less popular than swine flu, while solid progressives are on the rise. Such undiluted populist voices as Elizabeth Warren’s and Bernie Sanders’ in the Senate, Alan Grayson’s in the House and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s in New York City are shifting the debate from the corporate agenda to the people’s.

The anthem by rocker Patti Smith sums up where we Americans are — and where I think we’re going: “People have the power — to dream, to rule, to wrestle the world from fools.”

Ordinary folks are awakening to the realization that the fools have seized power, and the folks are now making moves (and movements) to seize the fools by their short hairs and reclaim our dreams. ++


Look Out, Wall Street, the New Populism Is Coming
Richard Eskow, Smirking Chimp
May 14, 2014

Even as the Campaign for America’s Future prepares for its May conference on the New Populism, attacks on populism keep coming from all directions. One of the latest salvos to be publicized comes in the form of an anecdote about Bill Clinton. As Tim Geithner told Andrew Ross Sorkin, Clinton sarcastically told the Wall Street-friendly Treasury Secretary how to “pursue a more populist strategy”:

“You could take Lloyd Blankfein into a dark alley,” Clinton said, “and slit his throat, and it would satisfy them for about two days. Then the blood lust would rise again.”

Clinton was always effective at belittling people with whom he disagrees — even when, as in this case, his own position is morally indefensible. The president and his economic team deregulated Wall Street to disastrous effect, then became very wealthy there after leaving office.

The “them” in Clinton’s quote is us. And the only people who confuse a cry for justice with “blood lust” are those who have become too close to the unjust.

It is precisely this sort of sneering insider indifference to public opinion — not to mention good governance and fair play — which has given rise to today’s populist mood. And make no mistake about it: the public’s mood, despite years of attempts by most Republicans and many Democrats to placate them, is distinctly populist. And much of that populist sentiment is directed toward the financial institutions which have so badly damaged our economy.

The fear triggered in some circles by a figure like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (who is the keynote speaker at the New Populism) conference is based, not on concerns about “blood lust,” but on an understanding of the politics involved. Washington insiders can protect Wall Street — and themselves — only so long as nobody represents the majority on the political stage. Once a populist alternative appears, like that represented by Sen. Warren and like-minded politicians, this “bipartisan” tilt toward bankers becomes much harder to maintain.

Why? Because these populist leaders aren’t just proposing the right policies toward Wall Street. They’re also offering very popular policies, policies with much deeper and broader support than those of the Clinton, Bush, or Obama administrations. Polling results compiled in CAF’s website show, for example, that …

More than half of those polled last month think the problems with banks which led to the 2008 financial crisis haven’t been fixed (to a large extent, they’re right);

Two-thirds of those polled believe that Wall Street financial institutions make it harder to find good jobs in the United States than was true in the past (again, there’s a lot of truth to that, given the increasing share of national profits being captured by the nonproductive financial sector);

Two-thirds believe there should be more government oversight of financial institutions such as banks and credit card companies;

More than nine out of 10 people polled believe it is important to regulate financial services in order to ensure fairness toward customers;

80 percent of those polled supported the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) after learning about Wall Street’s role in the economic crisis of 2008;

83 percent believe that new rules should be implemented for Wall Street, and that bankers should be held accountable for the actions which caused the financial crisis.

Most Americans are equally disturbed by the Wall Street- and billionaire-friendly economy which government policies have forged. Nearly 8 out of 10 Americans polled last month, for example, believe inequality is a problem – and more than half think it’s a major problem. Two-thirds of those polled in March believe it’s important for the government to implement policies that reduce inequality. 71 percent think the government believes it’s more important to help major corporations than to help the poor.

What’s more, Americans correctly perceive that bankers broke the law and got away with it — that, in fact, they were bailed out rather than punished. A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted last September showed that only 15 percent of the public agreed that “The government has sufficiently prosecuted bankers for their role in the financial crisis,” while more than half disagreed with that statement.

These populist trends are powerful enough to capture the attention of many politicians, including some Republicans. Public opinion, and presumably the free-market side of the conservative spectrum, have led several Republican politicians to take surprisingly populist positions on Wall Street issues. Last year, for example, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter joined with Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown (who is also speaking at the conference) to introduce a bill which takes aim at “too big to fail” banks. And earlier this year Republican Rep. Dave Camp proposed a bank asset tax designed to offset the market advantage held by large financial institutions.

But most of the populist financial action is taking place on the Democratic side of the aisle, perhaps to the consternation of the party’s Clinton/Obama wing. Sen. Warren’s brilliant campaign against Wall Street’s political privileges has been reinforced by proposals like Sen. Brown’s and has received the enthusiastic backing of independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

(Sen. Sanders and several key congressional progressive leaders, including Representatives Keith Ellison and Jan Schakowsky, will also be speaking at the conference.)

These legislators cannot force the Department of Justice to pursue lawbreaking bankers. But if enough of them come together, they can pass legislation to protect our economy. And, perhaps even more importantly, they can use their Congressional exposure to shift the political debate.

Insiders may scoff, but populist views of Wall Street aren’t driven by “blood lust” — or any other kind of lust. They’re driven by love — love of justice, love of fair play, love of democracy, love of country. And that’s giving rise to something which is already afflicting the comfortable and challenging the powerful.

Call it “the New Populism.” ++

Making The “New Populism” A Reality
Richard Eskow, Campaign for America’s Future Blog by Common Dreams
Tuesday, May 27, 2014 by

[open link for a short clip of highlights from the New Populism Conference]

“Democratic movements are initiated by people who have individually managed to attain a high level of personal political self-respect,” historian Lawrence Goodwyn wrote nearly four decades ago. “They are not resigned; they are not intimidated.”

“The game is rigged,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said at last week’s New Populism Conference, as if summoned forth from history by Goodwyn’s observation: “We can whine about it. We can whimper. Or we can fight back.

“Me? I’m fighting back.”

Against the Odds

Goodwyn’s quote comes from a book called “The Populist Moment: a Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America,” and it’s exciting to think that we might be facing another such historical moment. But Goodwyn warned of the obstacles such a movement inevitably faces: “cultural roadblocks,” the difficulty of enlisting supporters, educating them and encouraging them into action, and the powerful forces arrayed against movements of this kind.

Goodwyn also warned of “intense cultural conflict with many built-in advantages accruing to the partisans of the established order.” Anybody who has ever watched Fox News, or seen Bill Clinton sing from billionaire Pete Peterson’s hymnal at one of Peterson’s “Fiscal Summits,” can attest to the prophetic force of that 1978 observation.

Against such odds, what will it take to make the new populist movement a reality?

First, a Vision

“We need more than just bumper sticker phrases,” Rev. William Barber II of the NAACP said at the conference. Rev. Barber, who spoke of the connection between “academia and activism,” quoted a fellow theologian as saying that “prophetic moral vision seeks to penetrate despair so that new futures can be believed and embraced by us.”

“The slaves didn’t figure out how to get out of slavery by first figuring out how to get out,” said Rev. Barber. “They got out by first being driven by a vision that said, ‘Up above my head/I hear music in the air … before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home with my Lord and be free.’

“They had a vision to get out,” said Rev. Barber, “before they figured out the ways to accomplish that.”

To be real, the New Populism must also have a vision. In Rev. Barber’s words, “Imagination must come before implementation.”

“There must be people who keep alive the vocation of imagination,” said Rev. Barber, “who keep conjuring up alternative visions.”

Setting Goals

Rev. Barber’s populist agenda was similar to that of Sen. Warren, who outlined hers in the day’s keynote address:

    “We believe that Wall Street needs stronger rules and tougher enforcement, and we’re willing to fight for it.

    “We believe no one should work full-time and live in poverty, and that means raising the minimum wage – and we’re willing to fight for it.

    “We believe people should retire with dignity, and that means strengthening Social Security – and we’re willing to fight for it.

    “We believe that a kid should have a chance to go to college without getting crushed by debt – and we’re willing to fight for it.

    “We believe workers have a right to come together, to bargain together and to rebuild America’s middle class – and we’re willing to fight for it.

    “We believe in equal pay for equal work – and we’re willing to fight for it.

    “We believe equal means equal, and that’s true in the workplace and in marriage, true for all our families – and we’re winning that fight right now.”

Resisting Consensus

There was a strong sense of unanimity of purpose at the conference, which took place in Washington – a city whose political and media elite continue to argue that these goals are politically impossible. Rev. Barber had a response for that:

“One of the things that prophetic moral vision must do is restore the kind of hope that is the refusal to accept the reading of reality that is the majority opinion at the particular time.”

In a political world which is fixated on – and imposes arbitrary limits on– the “art of the possible,” the importance of this subversively indefatigable hope cannot be overstated.

Which is not to say that bipartisanship, albeit of a more transformative nature, was not on the table at the New Populism conference. Rev. Barber said that “we have to have language … that’s not bound by partisanship, but gets into people’s souls and asks them … Don’t you still want to be human?”

“I don’t want people to go left or right. I want them to go deeper into who we’re called to be. “

Fusion Reactions

Rev. Barber went on to talk about his experience in Mitchell County, North Carolina – which is 89 percent Republican and 99 percent white – where he was invited to speak and the listeners formed a local chapter of the NAACP and supported his economic agenda. “Don’t tell me it can’t be done,” he said of populist-themed “fusion politics.”

Polling data shows that this kind of left/right fusion politics, however utopian it may sound in a time of polarized politics, has genuine potential. Eight out of ten voters polled believe – perhaps “understand” would be a better word – that economic inequality is a real problem in our society. More than two-thirds of those polled believe the government should do more to address it.

As many as three out of four Republicans opposes the Social Security budget cuts long promoted by the Republican leadership and centrist/corporatist Democrats. More than 80 percent of Americans believe that we need new rules for Wall Street and that the government has not done enough to hold bankers accountable. More than nine out of ten believe we need financial oversight to keep the system fair. Most Americans believe the government’s top priority should be job creation.

On issue after issue, the public – often including most Republicans – supports economic positions that could accurately be described as “populist.” (See for more details.) These figures validate Rev. Barber’s experience and suggest that a truly nonpartisan populist movement is a realistic possibility. As Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) put it in his conference talk, “We are in a populist moment: the question is, What are we going to do about it?”

There are signs, however preliminary, of a potential “fusion” coalition in today’s party politics. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio spoke at the conference about partnering with conservative Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana on a bill to rein in “too big to fail” banks. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the democratic-socialist independent from Vermont, cosponsored a bill to audit the Federal Reserve with libertarian Republican Rep. Ron Paul.

Making Populism Real

But, as several conference speakers affirmed, elected officials will not generate a populist movement. There is too much money in our political system to make that realistic, despite the popularity of populist ideas. It’s much more comfortable for most politicians to preserve a status quo in which the GOP represents the economic far right, the “centrist” Democrats offer an economic platform that’s too often indistinguishable from Republican free-market conservatism of earlier eras, and truly populist leaders aren’t even on the ballot.

Profound social change – whether in the agrarian economy of the 1900s, the growth of labor rights, civil rights, women’s rights, or in other transformative historical moments – has always begun with a popular movement. “Politicians see the light when they feel the heat,” as Rep. Ellison said.

Is the New Populism real? Its footprints can be seen in the polling data, in the experiences of Rev. Barber and other conference speakers, and in the lessons of history. It exists as potentiality in the hearts and minds of the American people. It exists in the moral outrage that millions of people feel toward the injustice in our economic data, our cultural prejudices, and the unjust laws which remain on our books. It exists in our history and in our values.

But there is much work to do to move the New Populism from the world of nascent possibility to the world of transformative reality. It will be hard work – the work of expressing opinions that are sometimes unpopular, the work of showing up at demonstrations beneath the glare of hostile strangers (or hostile law enforcement), the work of calling strangers and friends, of starting petitions or email lists, the work of educating ourselves in the work of educating others.

There will be the work of committing deeply to struggle that at times will seem unwinnable, the work of remembering Dr. King’s words: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It will feel like a leap of faith at times, as if stepping off a cliff into the chasm of an unknown future.

But it must be done, and it can be done. Who will step forward and volunteer to do this work? If you’re reading these words, hopefully you’re ready to answer that question for yourself. ++

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Elizabeth Warren’s Moment
John Cassidy, New York Books
May 22, 2014 Issue

[This is a review of Warren's new book, A Fighting Chance, with interesting snips from her personal and political life.]

The Democrats’ New Fake Populism
Shamus Cooke, Common Dreams
Friday, May 30, 2014

It would have been hilarious were it not so nauseating. One could only watch the recent “New Populism” conference with pity-induced discomfort, as stale Democratic politicians did their awkward best to adjust themselves to the fad of “populism.”

A boring litany of Democratic politicians — or those closely associated — gave bland speeches that aroused little enthusiasm among a very friendly audience of Washington D.C. politicos. It felt like an amateur recital in front of family and friends, in the hopes that practicing populism with an audience would better prepare them for the real thing.

The organizers of the conference, The Campaign For America’s Future, ensured that real populism would be absent from the program. The group is a Democratic Party ally that essentially functions as a party think tank.

The two co-founders of Campaign for America’s Future are Robert Borosage — who works closely with the progressive caucus of the Democratic Party — and Robert Hickey, who works with Health Care for America Now, an organization that prioritized campaigning for Obamacare. On the Board of Directors is the notorious liberal Van Jones, no doubt carefully chosen for his non-threatening elitist politics.

The “new populism” seems to mistakenly believe that if Democrats merely advocate for a couple of “popular” ideas — as opposed to their usual unpopular policies that they actually implement — that they can suddenly transform themselves into “populists.”

The unofficial and uninspiring leader of this grouping, Senator Elizabeth Warren, summarized the “radical” populist platform of these reborn Democrat revolutionaries, doing her drab best to inject life into a zombie political party:

    “We believe that Wall Street needs stronger rules and tougher enforcement, and we’re willing to fight for it.”

    “We believe no one should work full-time and live in poverty, and that means raising the minimum wage — and we’re willing to fight for it.”

    “We believe people should retire with dignity, and that means strengthening Social Security — and we’re willing to fight for it.”

    “We believe that a kid should have a chance to go to college without getting crushed by debt — and we’re willing to fight for it.”

It’s true that 90 percent of Americans would agree with Warren, but the devil is in her lack of details. Warren’s popular platform falls incredibly flat because there are no concrete demands to inspire people, just generalizations. This important omission didn’t happen by mistake.

The Democrats simply do not want a new populist movement; rather, their opportunistic goal is to win elections by simply being more popular than the Republicans. Any of Warren’s above ideas — if they ever enter the halls of Congress as a bill — would be sufficiently watered down long before any elated response could be reached from the broader population.

How might Warren transform her ideas if she actually wanted a populist response? Some examples might be:

Jail the bankers who crashed the economy. Tax Wall Street earnings at 90% and nationalize any bank that is “too big to fail” in order to bring them under control.

Raise the national minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Expand Social Security by lowering the retirement age to 60, to be paid for by expanding payroll taxes to higher earners — who currently pay no Medicare and Social Security taxes on income over $110,000.

Free university education — to be paid for by taxing the rich and corporations. Eliminate crushing student debt.

Such demands would be much more likely to inspire people than what the “populist” Democrats are offering, and inspiration is the missing populist ingredient that the Democrats are organically incapable of provoking.

What’s preventing the Democrats from becoming inspirational? They know all too well that by venturing too far to the left they could easily instigate a real mass movement. And such a movement is not easily controlled and would inevitably demand much more than the corporate-minded Democrats are willing to concede, which, at this point, is virtually nothing aside from musty rhetoric.

Unlike the Republican’s populist turn to the right that created the now-defunct Tea Party, a true left turn would mean have the potential to rejuvenate the millions’ strong labor movement, while engaging tens of millions more into active political life, driving people to participate in mass marches, rallies, labor strikes and other forms of mass action.

This was what happened during the “old populism” in U.S. history, which the Democrats are taking their trendy namesake from. The populist movement of the late 1800’s was a genuine mass movement of workers and farmers, which briefly aligned in an independent political party, the People’s Party, also known as the populists.

The populist movement that included strike waves and local rural rebellions had nothing to do with the lifeless politics of the Democratic Party, and threatened the very foundation of America corporate power. The Democrats are keenly aware of this type of real populist “threat,” and they are willing to do anything to stop it.

For example, the Occupy movement proved that the Democrats fear real left populism much more than they fear far-right populism. We now know that the Obama administration worked with numerous Democratic Party mayors and governors across the nationto undermine and destroy the Occupy movement through mass arrests, police violence and surveillance. And because Occupy succeeded in changing the national conversation about income inequality, the Democrats were forced to engage with the rhetoric of the movement they dismembered, and now use the plagiarized language as proof of their “populism.”

Aside from Elizabeth Warren, the other rock star of the “new populism” conference was the nominally-independent “socialist” Bernie Sanders, who essentially functions in Congress as a Democrat. Sanders’ politics fits in perfectly with the rest of the progressive caucus Democrats, which is why he was invited to the conference. Sanders can perhaps outdo Warren when it comes to anti-corporate-speak; but like Warren he keeps his solutions vague and his movement building aspirations negligible.

If by chance Sanders chooses to run for president as an Independent — as many radicals are hoping — his fake populist politics and empty rhetoric are unlikely to drastically change, limiting any chance that a “movement” may emerge.

It’s doubtful that many people have been fooled by the “left turn” of the Democratic Party. But on a deeper level the politics of “lesser evilism” still haunts labor and community groups, and keeping these groups within the orbit of the Democratic Party is the ultimate purpose of this new, more radical speechifying. Until these groups organize themselves independently and create their own working class political party, the above politics of “populist” farce is guaranteed to continue. ++

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”~ The Reverend Martin Luther King

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

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