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Time for a Populist Revival! | The Nation

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Time for a Populist Revival!

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Money in politics

An activist demonstrates against the Citizens United decision in New York. (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

The following text is adapted from a speech delivered on February 8 to the Strategy Summit hosted by Progressive Congress (progressivecongress.com), an organization founded in 2009 by the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) and leaders of progressive NGOs.

Thanks for allowing a scruffy Texas populist to join you here at “The Summit” for this uptown, down-to-earth, back-to-basics populist-palooza. It makes me happier than a mosquito at a nudist colony to be looking out at you unabashed, untamed progressives. Thank you for fighting on behalf of America’s workaday majority, who’re being kicked out, knocked down and stomped on by the bosses, bankers, big shots, bastards and bullshitters. They seem to think they’re the top dogs and ordinary people are nothing but fire hydrants, so, again, thank you for standing up and speaking out against their plutocratic power plays.

I know it isn’t easy in the House to make these fights. Wow—what a menagerie of Koch-headed, right-wing, GOP mutants you have to mess with! It’s enough to make you feel sorry for poor ol’ John Boehner. He’s as confused as a goat on AstroTurf! What a hoot it was to watch him hype the Republicans’ stripped-down immigration bill recently, but have to declare it dead less than a week later because his Tea Party swarm turned on him. Then he blamed Obama for their recalcitrance. After all, he couldn’t admit the truth, which is: “My members are bull-goose, howl-at-the-moon lunatics!”

Take Steve Stockman… please! A certifiably insane, far-out right-winger representing a Houston suburb, he actually put out a re-election bumper sticker that says (and I’m not making this up), “If babies had guns, they wouldn’t be aborted.”

Nothing is too extreme for that bunch, and too much never seems enough for them. When I see them going full-tilt goofy, I think of some advice I got as a teenager: in sex, using a feather can be erotic. But using the whole chicken—well, that’s just kinky.

As our friend Bill Moyers said about them and their agenda, “The delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe to sit in the seat of power.”

Well, that’s their problem. But we Democrats are facing a big question of identity, too. Who will we be? Will our party be the home of populist, grassroots Democrats (both “little-d” democrats as well as big-D Dems)? Or will it be a bastion of Jamie Dimon–Wall Street Democrats?

Your Progressive Caucus is the key to answering that. You have achieved a strong presence inside Congress, and you now have a unique potential to amplify your voice by linking with us “outsiders”—i.e., the vibrant and growing network of activist progressive groups and unattached mad-as-hellers across the country. You have both the official standing and political credibility to rally our forces into something bigger and more cohesive than our many separate entities, thus creating a more effective national force for confronting the corporate plutocracy that is fast enthroning itself over the people’s democratic sovereignty.

Your theme at this summit, “Building a Progressive America,” is both right and doable, and your focus on populism is the right blueprint for getting it done. First, let’s make clear to a confused mass media what populism is not. It is not Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Grover Norquist or the Koch-funded, corporate-hugging, laissez-fairyland ideologues of the Tea Party. Nor is it a meaningless tag for lazy media outlets to attach to any spasm of popular discontent.

Rather, populism is the un-corporate America. It is a distinctive, very progressive and very American democratic -ism that not only acts politically but also economically, socially and culturally. As old as the USA itself, populism has a rich egalitarian philosophy, a deep history, noble accomplishments, and a broad reach that cuts right through the conventional political boxes that are deliberately designed to divide us.

Populism comes down to this core, unifying truth about today’s America: too few people control too much of the money and power, and they’re using that control to grab more money and power from the rest of us.

We don’t have to create this populist sensibility, for most people have a visceral sense of it. After all, they experience corporate control daily as workers, consumers, voters, small farmers, environmentalists, etc.—or by simply being female, Latino, black, LGBT, immigrant or anyone else those with power feel free to take advantage of. Especially today, the rapidly widening chasm of inequality between the elite few who have money and power and the vast majority of people who don’t has moved to the hottest burner of American politics. From in-depth Pew polls to the homilies of the pope, and even in the pews of supposedly conservative evangelical churches, the national discussion is focused exactly where the powers that be do not want it to be: on them.

The recent rise of populist fervor is showing once again that the true political spectrum in our country is not right to left (that’s theory, ideology—and most Americans are not ideological, or they’re ideological mutts). The actual spectrum runs from top to bottom, for that’s real-life experience—it’s people’s ZIP codes, income and other measures of their relationship to those at the top.

We need not fear talking to the people about even our strongest progressive proposals, for they’re already with us—or ahead of us. Citizens United? Eighty percent want it repealed, including 76 percent of Republicans! Hike the minimum wage? Hell, yes—again including a majority of Republicans and even 42 percent of Tea Partiers. Equal pay for women, no more NAFTAs, Medicare for all, big spending to restore our infrastructure, a “moon shot” to convert the country to green energy, a Robin Hood tax on Wall Street speculators, a stop to the NSA’s domestic spying and even gay marriage—thumbs up to all!

So we don’t have to generate public support for a populist politics, for it’s already in the hearts, minds and guts of the majority, though most don’t know the name for it. Rather, we have to bring this natural constituency to the realization that (1) they are populists; (2) they are not alone; (3) they have much more in common than they’ve been told; and (4) they can forge a new, noncorporatized people’s politics that can achieve all of the above—and far more. As Jesse Jackson puts it: “We might not all have come over in the same boat, but we’re in the same boat now.”

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