Robert L. Borosage, a Nation contributing editor, is president of the Institute for America’s Future.
We live in a populist moment. The Great Recession shattered the myths and lies of the conservative era. Barack Obama’s historic election briefly lifted hopes, but they were dashed in a recovery that still fails most Americans. A young generation, bequeathed unprecedented debt, lousy or no jobs, and a calamitous climate, has every reason to challenge business as usual.
As Senator Elizabeth Warren puts it, “The game is rigged and the American people know that. They get it down to their toes.” Poll after poll shows that broad majorities hold populist opinions—on investment, taxes and trade; on curbing Wall Street; on cleaning out Washington—that are far removed from those of the elites. Democratic pollsters now advise their clients to talk about working families, not the middle class, because more and more Americans don’t feel part of the latter.
New leaders like Warren and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio won office by running aggressively populist campaigns. Voters from California to New Jersey have supported measures to expand school funding by raising taxes on the rich. Seattle passed a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and states across the country are pushing to hike wages, crack down on wage theft and pass paid family leave. A populist temper finds expression on both the left and the right (exemplified in the latter case by the defeat of House majority leader Eric Cantor).
Despite this, despair is widespread on the left. Inequality is at new extremes, too-big-to-fail banks are bigger than ever, labor unions weaker and under assault, big-money politics as corrupt as ever. The Tea Party and lavishly funded right-wing political operations have wrenched the Republican Party even further to the right, obstructing any reform. Right-wing governors are savaging public provisions and suppressing the vote. Republicans are expected to gain in the midterm elections. And Hillary Clinton, Wall Street’s favorite Democrat, seems content to run on past accomplishments rather than new directions.
How do progressives grasp this moment to build power? Legions of articles detail the failures and weaknesses of the left, but few offer a way forward. So The Nation invited leading activists from across the progressive movement to talk about how we can build power to effect real change, not simply fend off reactionary assaults.
Progressive movements, of course, have transformed America before and continue to do so, especially on social issues and identity politics. The recent sweeping gains of the LGBT community are one impressive example. Now, however, the central question of our time is economic: how to make this economy work for the majority and not just the few.
Occupy Wall Street demonstrated the power of people in motion, exposing a system rigged against the 99 percent. It vanished after a few months, but it transformed our political debate. Perhaps that’s because, as the Rev. William Barber of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina argues, successful populist movements begin with an indictment of what is and a moral vision of what could be. They challenge mainstream political parties and the limits of the political debate. To be sustained, though, they must be grounded in institutions—unions, churches, community groups. Given the grip of entrenched interests in our politics, little will change without growing, independent mass protest.