As populist campaign slogans go, I’ve always been partial to the one former Democratic National Committee chairman and Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris came up with back in the 1970s: “Take the Rich Off Welfare.”
Around the same time, the great Virginia populist Henry Howell ran a number of statewide races—winning for lieutenant governor, losing for governor—with the slogan: “Keep the Big Boys Honest.” That was a delightfully pointed message, as well.
Back in the 1970s, populists were on the side of the “little people” who got pushed around by the “big boys.” Both Harris and Howell sought to forge a multiracial, multiethnic movement politics that anticipated the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” campaigns with the argument that “there are more of us than there are of them.” Now, we have the ugly phenomenon of billionaire charlatan Donald Trump’s reverse populism, which has nationalized the noxious “southern strategy” of organizing one part of the working class against other parts of the working class.
The Democratic Party, circa 2017, is trying to counter Trump’s Republicans with a refined populism of their own, employing the slogan “A Better Deal.” It’s focused on feel-good economic themes: better jobs, better wages, and better training to get better jobs and better wages. The focus on economics is valid; there is some evidence that Democratic leaders are finally starting to think about the structural changes that must take place in order to break the grip of crony capitalism and make real the promise of “more money in your pocket.” For instance, the party brass has signaled a willingness to embrace antitrust and anti-monopoly policies that are essential to restoring the sort of genuine competition that lowers prices for everything from airline tickets to cable service.
More power to those who are following the lead of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and academic and activist Zephyr Teachout. Whenever Democrats distance themselves from the “Third Way” compromises that have prevented the party from getting serious about economic issues, that’s encouraging.
But too many top Democrats remain too tentative in their language, and too cautious in spelling out progressive-populist policies that might challenge—for example—the tech monopolists who are colonizing the future. Even now, the party’s program errs on the side of Bill Clinton’s old “a-little-something-for-everyone” platforms that were successful enough at the presidential level (Clinton won 43 percent of the vote in 1992 and 49 percent in 1996), but never really translated to the congressional and state races where Democrats lost so much ground in the 1990s.
The Democrats are going to have to get more specific, and a good deal bolder, if they want to trump Trump’s faux populism with something that is muscular enough to fully reverse the party’s dismal fortunes in recent mid-term elections. There’s nothing wrong with ripping into Trump, and there is a good case to be made that simply promising “a better deal” than the president’s Goldman-Sachs-plated programs for redistributing wealth upward will win back some congressional seats.
But promises won’t be sufficient to mobilize the mass turnout that is needed.
A shift in voting patterns of the sort that would be needed to reverse the Democratic losses of recent years will be achieved only by making a clear connection between the energetic and engaged anti-Trump resistance and a legislative agenda that is starkly distinct from the cruel and unusual politics not just of this president but of the Wall Street traders and corporate CEOs whose self-interest (and willingness to support crudely divisive policies) made the Republican Party receptive to Trumpism.
People need something real to sink their votes into. The greatest progressive populist campaign of the past century, Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 reelection run on a anti-oligarchy platform that held out the promise of American social democracy, secured the greatest landslide win for Democrats (and their left-wing third-party allies such as Wisconsin’s Progressives and Minnesota’s Farmer Laborites) in the past century. Why? Because FDR merged “naming names” anger at economic elites with a program that was designed to tip the balance of power to the great mass of Americans.
Roosevelt pulled absolutely no punches, declaring in one of the last speeches of the campaign that he was running not against hapless Republican Alf Landon but against the “employers and politicians and publishers” who defend “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering…”
“They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob,” the 32nd president said of the plutocrats he had chosen to challenge. “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
Roosevelt’s denunciations of the crony capitalist elites were coupled with a program that recognized: “the people want more than promises.”
FDR proceeded to “state our objectives”—“to reduce hours over-long, to increase wages that spell starvation, to end the labor of children, to wipe out sweatshops…to end monopoly in business, to support collective bargaining, to stop unfair competition, to abolish dishonorable trade practices. For all these we have only just begun to fight”—but he did not stop there. He made a moral argument on behalf of the poorest of the poor.
“Here and now I want to make myself clear about those who disparage their fellow citizens on the relief rolls. They say that those on relief are not merely jobless—that they are worthless. Their solution for the relief problem is to end relief—to purge the rolls by starvation. To use the language of the stock broker, our needy unemployed would be cared for when, as, and if some fairy godmother should happen on the scene,” FDR declared during a preelection rally at New York’s Madison Square Garden. “You and I will continue to refuse to accept that estimate of our unemployed fellow Americans. Your Government is still on the same side of the street with the Good Samaritan and not with those who pass by on the other side.”
Today’s Democrats must echo FDR’s old renunciations of “economic royalists” and align them with an 21st-century moral agenda—one that recognizes the pressures placed on all working Americans by 30 years of globalization, 20 years of the digital revolution, and 10 years of an automation revolution that is only just getting started. It isn’t enough to promise “a better deal.” There has to be an edgy boldness to the program. It has to frighten Wall Street and the corporate elites as much as FDR’s assaults on “economic royalists” did. And it has to do so not just by objecting to economic inequality but by proposing the absolute and unrelenting pursuit of economic and social justice.
To that end, the Our Revolution movement that grew out of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, Democratic Socialists of America, Democracy for America, the Working Families Party, National Nurses United, Good Jobs Nation, and a dozen other groups have launched a “People’s Platform” that gets down to details.
On Tuesday, the groups launched a “Summer of Progress” campaign that seeks “to move the Democratic Party to the left.” The measures of progress are not rhetorical. They are legislative. Bills have been introduced—most of them authored and introduced, sponsored, and co-sponsored by members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. As part of the #PeoplesPlatform campaign, all Democratic members of Congress will be urged to sign on for a set of bills that would guarantee:
• Medicare for All: HR 676 Medicare for All Act, introduced by Congressman John Conyers Jr., D-Michigan.
• Women’s Health Care Rights: HR 771—Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH Woman) Act of 2017, introduced by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-CA.
• Tax on Wall Street: HR 1144—Inclusive Prosperity Act, introduced by Congressman Keith Ellison, D-MN.
• College for All: H.R. 1880 College for All Act of 2017, introduced by Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, D-WA.
• Worker Rights: H.R.15—Raise the Wage Act, introduced by Congressmen Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, and Keith Ellison, D-MN.
• Voting Rights: H.R.2840—Automatic Voter Registration Act, introduced by Congressman David Cicilline, D-RI.
• Criminal Justice and Immigrant Rights: Justice Is Not For Sale Act of 2017, introduced by Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva, D-AZ.
With environmental-justice and climate-change legislation that is now being drafted, the People’s Platform promises not just necessary resistance to Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell but a bold alternative agenda that is not just a better deal. It is a new New Deal that tells the economic royalists they must stand down, pay their taxes, and accept a United States where austerity and inequality is replaced with the moral economic vision, the moral social vision, that Franklin Delano Roosevelt spelled out on October 31, 1936: “‘Peace on earth, good will toward men’—democracy must cling to that message. For it is my deep conviction that democracy cannot live without that true religion which gives a nation a sense of justice and of moral purpose.”