To put the progress back in “progressive,” we need a real populist movement

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Populism is not about mobs, anti-government rants, or opinion polls

If a political pollster came to my door and asked whether I consider myself a conservative or a liberal, I’d answer, “No.”

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Not to be cute–I have a bit of both in me–but because, like most Americans, my beliefs can’t be squeezed into either of the tidy little boxes that the establishment provides.

Also, most of the big issues that our country faces defy right-left categorization. Take conservatism. It’s a doctrine that classically embodies caution and…well, conservation. Yet the gushing and spreading Gulf Coast oil disaster was caused by people who proudly identify themselves as conservatives–including top executives of BP, Halliburton, and Transocean, as well as the top regulatory officials involved. However, they’re not conservatives, they’re anything-goes corporatists. Likewise, the five Supreme Court justices who recently enthroned corporate money over democracy (Lowdown, March 2010) are routinely labeled by the media as “conservative”–but their reckless rulings destroy our democratic values, rather than conserve them. Again, corporatists all.

As I’ve rambled through life, I’ve observed that the true political spectrum in our society does not range from right to left, but from top to bottom. This is how America’s economic and political systems really shake out, with each of us located somewhere up or down that spectrum, mostly down. Right to left is political theory; top to bottom is the reality we actually experience in our lives every day–and the vast majority of Americans know that they’re not even within shouting distance of the moneyed powers that rule from the top of both systems, whether those elites call themselves conservatives or liberals.

For me, the “ism” that best encompasses and addresses this reality is populism. What is it? Essentially, it’s the continuation of America’s democratic revolution. It encompasses and extends the creation of a government that is us. Instead of a “trickle down” approach to public policy, populism is solidly grounded in a “percolate up” philosophy that springs directly from America’s founding principle of the Common Good.

Few people today call themselves populists, but I think most are. I’m not talking about the recent political outbursts by confused, used, and abused teabag ranters who’ve been organized by corporate front groups to spread a hatred of government. Rather, I mean the millions of ordinary Americans in every state who’re battling the real power that’s running roughshod over us: out-of-control corporations. With their oceans of money and their hired armies of lobbyists, lawyers, economists, consultants, and PR agents, these self-serving, autocratic entities operate from faraway executive suites and Washington backrooms to rig the economic and governmental rules so that they capture more and more of America’s money and power.

The superwealthy speculators and executives who own and run these far-flung, private empires don’t live in our zip codes, but their power reaches into all of our lives. During the past 30 years or so, they have quietly succeeded in untethering their ilk from our country’s quaint notion that we’re all in this together. They’ve elevated their private interests above the public interest and entrenched themselves as the preeminent decision makers over our economy, environment, and media–and our government. They pull the strings.

You can shout yourself red-faced at Congress critters you don’t like and demand a government so small it’d fit in the back room of Billy Bob’s Bait Shop & Sushi Stand–but you won’t be touching the corporate and financial powers behind the throne. In fact, weak government is the political wet dream of corporate chieftains, which is why they’re so ecstatic to have the Tea Party out front for them. But the real issue isn’t small government; it’s good government. (Can I get an amen from Gulf Coast fishing families on that!?)

This is where populists come in. You wouldn’t know it from the corporate media, but in just about every town or city in our land you can find some groups or coalitions that, instead of merely shouting at politicians, have come together to find their way around, over, or through the blockage that big money has put in the way of their democratic aspirations. Also, in the process of organizing, strategizing, and mobilizing, these groups are building relationships and community, creating something positive from a negative.

This is the historic, truly democratic, grassroots populism of workaday folks who strive (and, more often than not, succeed) to empower themselves to take charge economically as well as politically.

With the rebellious spirit and sense of hope that have defined America from the start, these populists are directly challenging the plutocratic order that reigns over us. This populism is unabashedly a class movement–one that seeks not merely to break the iron grip that centralized corporate power has on our country, but also to build cooperative democratic structures so that ordinary people–not moneyed interests–define and control our country’s economic and political possibilities.

Reclaim populism

It’s necessary to restate the solid principles of populism and reassert its true spirit because both are now being subverted and severely perverted by corporate manipulators and a careless media establishment. To these debasers of the language, any politicos or pundits who tap into any level of popular anger (toward Obama, liberals, the IRS, poor people, unions, gays, immigrants, Hollywood, community organizers, environmentalists, et al.) get a peel-off “populist” label slapped onto their lapels–even when their populist pose is funded by and operates as a front for one or another corporate interest. That’s not populism; it’s rank hucksterism, disguising plutocrats as champions of the people.

Witness Sarah Palin, whose political flowering was induced by the rich stimulant of corporate money and who has now been turned into an overnight multimillionaire by agreeing to serve as the political face and voice for such corporate barons as Rupert Murdoch. Palin’s chief function is to rally the teabag faithful (who are less than 20% of the public) into a cacophonous, furious, and ludicrous defense of the domineering power of–guess who?–corporate barons.

Yet, few in the media peek behind her facade. After hearing Palin loyally denounce the unmitigated evil of government at a recent Tea Party convention, for example, Washington Post columnist David Broder, the eminent establishmentarian, gushed about her “pitch-perfect populism.”

Even worse than the media’s misapplication of the label is its desperate determination to marginalize what is actually a venerable and historic movement as nothing more than assorted gaggles of grumps and quacks. George Will, the effete conservative commentator, sniffed in a February column that populism is “a celebration of intellectual ordinariness.” Then he dismissed its political importance with a sweeping declaration that populism “always wanes because it never seems serious as a solution.”

Perhaps George had his signature bowtie too tightly tied that day, cutting off the flow of blood to his memory cells. Otherwise, someone of his intellectual extraordinariness would have recalled that the populists of the 1880s were the ones who formed the first U.S. political party to propose and push such serious solutions as women’s suffrage; wage protections and an eight-hour day for labor; direct election of U.S. senators by the people; elimination of poll taxes and literacy tests for voting; corralling the power of lobbyists; civil-service laws; pensions for veterans; a graduated income tax; elimination of all subsidies to private corporations; outlawing the Pinkterton system of corporate mercenaries to bust unions; and preserving America’s natural resources from being monopolized for speculative purposes.

It’s important to reclaim populism from dissemblers and hijackers because populism is a legitimate, positive, uniting political expression with a rich history (though largely untaught), a genuine appeal to today’s disaffected majority, and a huge potential for making real democratic progress against corporate rule. There is serious power in the concept, which is precisely why corporatists are out to hide its long and proud history and to squeeze its meaning down to something as vacuous as “popular,” allowing them to capture it for their own use.

Now is the time for progressives to reassert their populist beliefs and bona fides, for we’re living in a teachable moment in which it’s possible to reach most Americans with an aggressive and positive approach to achieving a higher level of economic and political democracy. There is a spreading and deepening recognition within today’s broad middle class that they’ve been abandoned to a plutocracy that feels free to knock them down and leave them there. The disdain that the power elites have for the rest of us is glaringly and gallingly apparent:

  • Wall Street billionaires crash our economy but are bailed out at our expense to continue their banksterism against us.
  • We’re told to accept a “jobless recovery” and to sit still for a “new normal” of perpetually low wages, continuing losses of American jobs, and steady erosion of union and consumer power.
  • We’re presented with two flagrant examples of murderous corporate greed–first at Massey Energy’s deadly coal mine, then at BP’s deadly offshore oil well–yet no corporate executive has even been arrested.

Do the Powers That Be (whether liberal or conservative) really imagine that the great majority of Americans don’t see or don’t care about this rank classism, this in-your-face stiffing of the middle class? Not only do regular folks see and care, but there has been a corresponding rise in populist attitudes and activism each time the government shows itself to be in cahoots with the stiffers. Following Bush, Obama brought “the audacity of hope” to Washington, and most of us cheered. But people have since seen too many times when he and other top Democrats posed as reformers, only to back off when push came to shove, ending up coddling the corporate plutocracy.

Take that January Supreme Court ruling that literally allows corporations to buy our elections. Arcane issues of campaign financing don’t usually move the bubble in opinion polls, but the Great Unwashed instantly grasped that this was raw corporate usurpation of the people’s democratic authority, and they howled. With polls showing that 83% of Americans (including 73% of Republicans) are demanding immediate action to overturn this outrage, Obama himself pledged to jump right on it.

Months passed. No action. Finally, Democrats introduced what they called “a sweeping reform.” Big Whoopie. Rather than boldly leading the charge for a constitutional amendment to reverse this corporate coup, the bill caves in to the Court’s disastrous ruling, meekly proposing nothing more than some new campaign-finance disclosure rules. It actually gives legal cover for Exxon Mobil, Goldman Sachs, Walmart, and the rest to steal our government–they just have to wear name tags while doing it. Harsh, huh?

This kind of stuff is why there’s a yearning for-as we say in Texas–politics with hair on it. On April 30, I was interviewed by Bill Moyers for a special edition of his PBS television show. It was the final broadcast of his long-running, excellent, and important “Journal,” and he chose to close with his own testament to what he sees as the promising rise of modern-day populism:

“Plutocracy and democracy don’t mix…The fate and character of our country are up for grabs. So along with Jim Hightower and many of you, I am biased: democracy only works when we claim it as our own.”

Following the broadcast, hundreds of emails and letters poured into my office, with many more going to Bill–practically all of them positive. Populism clearly struck a chord with folks, and I was encouraged by the many who accepted our interview as a call to action. Here’s a sampling from around the country:

Plattsburgh, NY: “A couple of my friends and I are most inspired by the Populist message and would like to meet other like-minded people. You speak my language and have inspired me to get more involved.”

North Carolina: “Always thought I was a frustrated southern Democrat, but I’m thinking I may be a populist now. I would love to find out where I can get involved here in North Carolina.”

Western Massachusetts: “I was very cynical about grassroots movements, especially the Tea Party. Your remarks were clarifying. Any advice on how I can help?”

Hillsboro, OR: “I have the energy to help drive these changes but am unsure as to how I can most effectively help. I know just being involved is a huge step, and so I want to get involved.”

Nebraska: “I would just like to get a dialogue going [and] to make my website one that would be useful in getting people aware and aroused to put the government back to work for the people, not just the rich folks.”

Wisconsin: “To know that there are people that are not just laying down to be trampled on and stepped over, brings me some comfort.”

Washington State: “I just watched Moyers’ show and found out I’m a populist; where do I sign up?”

A movement

We have a populist majority in America right now. Look at nearly any poll or talk with people at the local Chat & Chew Cafe, and you’ll find–contrary to teabag hype, the contrived “wisdom” of major media outlets, and the political weenieness of too many Democratic “leaders”–that most folks are already with us on practically all of the big issues related to the corporatization of America (jobs, Wall Street, pollution, money in politics, a green economy, health care, media, unions, affordable housing, pensions, K-Street lobbyists, local businesses, infrastructure investment, progressive taxation, you name it).

Moreover, there is huge support for our fundamental populist values (economic fairness, social justice, and equal opportunity for ALL) and for our guiding principle of the Common Good. People believe in these ideals and hold them deep in their hearts, even though our corporate rulers don’t want them discussed, much less implemented.

From coast to coast, in nearly every community, you’ll find people who are implementing these principles in their work, businesses, schools, families, organizations, religions, neighborhoods, and every other area of their lives. Millions of Americans are deliberately defying the corporate order to create new structures, groups, systems, and relationships based on richer values than the stilted corporate ethic.

Cooperatives, for example, are one bright populist path to structural economic change. You can join with others in your community to own, control, manage, profit from, and enjoy the places where you work, live, produce, play, buy, eat, bank, get health care, etcetera. These are democratic entities in which decisions are not handed down from the top, but made by the members. As opposed to aloof, absentee, autocratic corporate owners who extract wealth from communities, co-ops are of, by, and for the community, creating good jobs and distributing both wealth and power locally.

The cooperative idea is big and growing rapidly in every state. About 72,000 are up and running, involving 120 million members. It’s a valid, large-scale alternative for building democratic values directly into America’s economic structure, so turn your imagination loose. For instance, here in my town of Austin, a bunch of enterprising folks have launched Black Star, America’s first cooperatively owned and run microbrewery and pub! Needless to say, I’m in.

Big changes require big ideas rooted in big ideals–combined with strategic thinking, lots of grunt-level organizing, a broad willingness to cooperate, and the tenacity to stick with it. In other words, a movement. It’s not something that can be created by one presidential campaign, and it has to be more than an uncoordinated collection of issue groups.

The populist movement of the late nineteenth century, for example, was not a helter-skelter organization thrown together on the whim of some angry, inept know-nothings. It was built by smart, knowledgeable big thinkers, strategists, and organizers.

They created a nationwide network of cooperative enterprises to provide capital, supplies, and marketing mechanisms for movement members. They formed their own integrated media network of newspapers, magazines, books, and speakers, allowing the movement to communicate and educate constantly. They trained thousands to be leaders. They ran their own members for public office, electing hundreds all across the country. They taught literacy classes, put on cultural events, provided lecturers, formed bands and singing groups, held festivals, and otherwise linked members into fun, self-improvement, and a shared social experience.

That’s what a movement looks like.

Let’s get moving

Progressive forces today already have nearly all of the components of an effective movement at work around the country, but there’s little connection among the components, no uniting theme to our many issues, no longterm focus, and no common strategy. Because of this, we’re not actually a movement–and we’re not really moving much.

To make the whole of our efforts greater than the sum of our diverse, dispersed parts, we urgently need to be more unified. I don’t mean anything grandiose like one big happy organization, but modest steps forward. It could begin simply by having some serious conversations among our groups, media sources, organizers, funders, and other resources about how we can produce a bit more cooperation and slightly more coordination.

It seems to me that the rallying point is a focus on the populist possibilities presented by the corporate arrogance and avarice that is crushing our country’s potential. With that, we might actually become a movement that moves.


I’m making moves!

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