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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.”

Our first job is to reach them with a message of unity and progressive possibilities. Here are a few of my thoughts on doing that, based on the enormous creativity and grassroots successes that I’ve encountered as I’ve crisscrossed the country:

§ Don’t forget that cultural shifts produce political change, not the other way around. This includes the big cultural shifts, the dawning on society that a way of thinking has been wrong. The great progressive movements (including the phenomenal mass democratic movement generated by the nineteenth-century Populists themselves) have advanced not only by good organizing, but by a steady altering of the public’s perception. The watershed moment of the civil rights movement of the 1960s came when a critical mass of Americans saw news films of such raw ugliness as the police dogs that Bull Connor turned against peaceful protesters in Birmingham. Stunned viewers said (first to themselves, then to others), “That’s not right.”

We’re in the midst of a huge cultural shift today, as both the LGBT and the immigrant movements are enjoying an abrupt and stunning shift in public attitudes. The shift is led by young people, who have had the temerity to say to the elders who are demonizing gays and undocumented people: “You’re wrong. I know Mary (or Maria). I stand with her.”

Such shifts are largely propelled not by statistics and clever debating points but by storytelling, art, songs, puppets, social media and other forms of cultural expression that have emotional resonance. Take the free-form, nonhierarchical Occupy movement. It’s been dismissed by the cognoscenti as an undisciplined failure that produced no legislation. But come on—a legislative agenda isn’t change. Occupy’s great contribution was that it was a genuine, noninstitutional, non-wonkish, morally compelling uprising against the prevailing culture of inequality—and it touched people in ways far deeper than old-line issue politics can ever do. Indeed, Occupy turned Wall Street’s pampered brats into social pariahs and put America’s yawning chasm of inequality right at the center of the country’s policy discussion (as the clueless Mitt Romney learned the hard way).

§ Building a people’s movement requires taking the long view. As my friend Willie Nelson has observed, “The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”

We just saw a sterling example in New York City of how this long-term view pays off. In November’s elections, the Working Families Party enjoyed sweeping victories, including being a major force in electing new mayor Bill de Blasio. Long associated with the WFP, de Blasio won 73 percent of the vote on a proudly populist platform that included a major hike in the city’s minimum wage, increased taxes on the rich and pre-kindergarten education for every New York City child. Also, WFP members Letitia James and Scott Stringer won the other two citywide offices (public advocate and comptroller, respectively), and a dozen progressive candidates backed by the WFP were elected for the first time.

What a 2013 success story, huh? No. All of these politically transformative wins were ten years in the making: ten years of recruiting good candidates and campaign organizers, training and retraining them, building credibility with successful issue campaigns, developing strong door-to-door relationships in the city, constantly organizing, harmonizing and mobilizing… then winning.

§ Expand the movement by reaching out and connecting with other movements that don’t identify as progressive but are in fact populist and also are actually on the move. Consider the widespread, disjointed, furious, truly grassroots rebellion against Big Oil frackers. This thoroughly destructive drilling process is largely happening in supposedly conservative places, but the corporate arrogance and deep harm being done has sparked uprisings that are uniting farmers, environmentalists, property rights advocates, corporate reformers and just plain folks. The fledgling coalitions are scrappy (and are winning some significant fights), but they’re up against ruthless corporate giants. They’re having to learn as they go—and they feel alone. So I ask you: Why aren’t we—the progressive forces generally, and this caucus specifically—out there standing with them?

One group that is connecting and has experience in forging and developing effective populist coalitions is National People’s Action. Led by George Goehl, this excellent organization has some of its organizers here today. Maybe the Congressional Progressive Caucus could explore teaming up with NPA, drawing in others and finding ways to be of tangible assistance to those folks in the fracking fields, while also adding to the populist movement’s base.

§ To reach people in compelling ways, we progressives would do ourselves a tactical favor by not dumping our whole landfill of facts and talking points on every person we meet. Instead, let’s draw back a bit from our intense “issue-speak” and offer more about our core values (of economic fairness, social justice and equal opportunity for all) and tell personal stories that paint pictures in people’s minds. As Van Jones has pointed out about Dr. King’s historic 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial, he didn’t say, “I have a position paper.”

There’s a fledgling coalition in North Carolina that is leading the way on this. Last April, fed up with the right-wing rampage by the Republican supermajority in the legislature, the Rev. William Barber II, head of the state NAACP, launched a people’s nonviolent protest in the Capitol, calling it “Moral Mondays.” At first a few came, then a lot, then thousands, with hundreds getting arrested. Teachers might lead the protests one week, unemployed people the next, then seniors, students, labor, anti-poverty advocates, doctors, ministers… so no one group is “in charge” and the spotlight is not on any one issue, but on the rank immorality of the legislature’s corporate-backed assault on decency, the common good and democracy itself. As one participant put it, they are here “to save the soul of our state.”

Moral Monday protests have spread across the Tar Heel State, with more than 8,000 people turning out recently in downtown Asheville. Also, Moral Mondays Georgia has cropped up, and a South Carolina coalition has launched Truthful Tuesdays. Something big is percolating in the South, and we shouldn’t just take note of it, but show up and ask the people there what we can do to help.

Some say that a populist movement can’t hold together, that it’s like herding cats. But those who say you can’t herd cats never tried a can opener. They will come. And our can opener is that set of progressive values: fairness, justice, opportunity for all.

§ Finally, the most useful message that I bring to you today is this: get the hell out of Washington!

You are not just a caucus of Congress, but also representatives of America’s progressive movement. The people of that movement need to see you, hear you, talk to you, connect with you. The CPC has more punch and a greater potential than you realize—not merely inside Congress, but especially outside. Your caucus can become the rallying point for the burgeoning grassroots forces of populism. By rallying the “outside,” the CPC would geometrically increase its voice on the inside.

As you know from your work in your districts, there is no organizational center of the progressive movement. You could provide that. I don’t mean any grandiose hierarchical structure, but a nationwide channel for connecting the movement’s many components, amplifying its voice and increasing its reach. You could (and should) become this hub, not by holding a press conference or proclaiming that the CPC will take the lead, but by simply doing it. Here are a couple of ways:

One, start going to the countryside with a series of CPC hearings on the minimum wage, Citizens United, fracking, etc. As you know, a member of Congress is not that big a deal in your own town, but I guarantee that if groups of three or four of you held progressive congressional forums in places like Des Moines, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Albuquerque and Spokane, you would fill the biggest hall in town with people eager to start mobilizing in a big, interconnected, progressive movement. Media coverage would be extensive in each place, and people would be energized by the mere fact that someone in power gives a damn about connecting with them and has bothered to come out to enlist them.

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Two, help set up a progressive speakers network, so we routinely have outreach in cities, suburbs and towns, providing nationwide education and action on populist principles and causes. The nineteenth-century Populist movement had 40,000 “lecturers” in its speakers program, constantly going directly into communities to spread the word. We don’t have forty now who are out there regularly. But we do have plenty of good speakers, each of whom could commit to doing maybe a half-dozen local events a year, with community groups and social media generating content and crowds. I can tell you from experience that these grassroots speaking events, combined with a bit of music and some libations to turn them festive and lubricate the movement, are not only enlightening and invigorating for the audience, but for the speakers as well.

My overall point is that to have a mass movement, we have to go to the masses. I’ll leave you with this thought, which I stole from the advertising pitch of a small moving company that was in my town of Austin, Texas, back in the ’70s. This company was really just a couple of good ol’ boys (named Skeeter and Booger, as I recall) with a truck, but they had a winning ad in the Yellow Pages that said, “If we can get it loose, we can move it.”

There’s our challenge: get the grassroots loose, and the people themselves will move America forward to a bright populist future.

 

Read Next: In “How to Build an Anti-Poverty Movement, From the Grassroots Up,” Greg Kaufmann presents ten groups that are laying the foundation for an economic justice revival.

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