Sunday, June 1, 2014

Is the new Democratic Party's Populism fake?

In a recent post, I gave the Danish People's Party a 9.5 authentic rating for their version of Populism.  The USA's New Populism Conference reported on here two weeks ago could use a similar rating.  Shamus Cooke in the post below doesn't think much about this latest effort at Populism and makes some good points.  In fact it appears he believes that the Democratic Party, having endured the conversion of both "liberal" and "progressive" into a word of slander have now turned to "populist" without all that much concern of what it means to be a real Populist.

Although I agree with much of what Cooke writes, I also know that the original Populists had a pretty wide mixture of brilliant and pedestrian.  The conference of May 22 had two excellent examples of a Populist potential.  Elizabeth Warren understands the structural damage caused by deregulated bankers while Sherrod Brown from Ohio has a deep understanding of the damage caused by de-industrialization.  The rest of the participants do not have much of a track record that could be termed Populist.

So even though the USA is where Populism was invented, the current versions have some serious catching up to do to accomplish what their Danish counterparts have already.  If the Danes rate a 9.5 out of 10, the recent efforts of the Democratic Party to go Populist rates, at best, about a 4.8

The Democrats’ New Fake Populism

Shamus Cooke | May 30, 2014

It would have been hilarious were it not so nauseating. One could only watch the recent “New Populism” conference with pity-induced discomfort, as stale Democratic politicians did their awkward best to adjust themselves to the fad of “populism.”

A boring litany of Democratic politicians — or those closely associated — gave bland speeches that aroused little enthusiasm among a very friendly audience of Washington D.C. politicos. It felt like an amateur recital in front of family and friends, in the hopes that practicing populism with an audience would better prepare them for the real thing.

The organizers of the conference, The Campaign For America’s Future, ensured that real populism would be absent from the program. The group is a Democratic Party ally that essentially functions as a party think tank.

The two co-founders of Campaign for America’s Future are Robert Borosage — who works closely with the progressive caucus of the Democratic Party — and Robert Hickey, who works with Health Care for America Now, an organization that prioritized campaigning for Obamacare. On the Board of Directors is the notorious liberal Van Jones, no doubt carefully chosen for his non-threatening elitist politics.

The “new populism” seems to mistakenly believe that if Democrats merely advocate for a couple of “popular” ideas — as opposed to their usual unpopular policies that they actually implement — that they can suddenly transform themselves into “populists.”

The unofficial and uninspiring leader of this grouping, Senator Elizabeth Warren, summarized the “radical” populist platform of these reborn Democrat revolutionaries, doing her drab best to inject life into a zombie political party:
  • “We believe that Wall Street needs stronger rules and tougher enforcement, and we’re willing to fight for it.”
  • “We believe no one should work full-time and live in poverty, and that means raising the minimum wage — and we’re willing to fight for it.”
  • “We believe people should retire with dignity, and that means strengthening Social Security — and we’re willing to fight for it.”
  • “We believe that a kid should have a chance to go to college without getting crushed by debt — and we’re willing to fight for it.”
It’s true that 90 percent of Americans would agree with Warren, but the devil is in her lack of details. Warren’s popular platform falls incredibly flat because there are no concrete demands to inspire people, just generalizations. This important omission didn’t happen by mistake.

The Democrats simply do not want a new populist movement; rather, their opportunistic goal is to win elections by simply being more popular than the Republicans. Any of Warren’s above ideas — if they ever enter the halls of Congress as a bill — would be sufficiently watered down long before any elated response could be reached from the broader population.

How might Warren transform her ideas if she actually wanted a populist response? Some examples might be:
1) – Jail the bankers who crashed the economy. Tax Wall Street earnings at 90% and nationalize any bank that is “too big to fail” in order to bring them under control.
2) – Raise the national minimum wage to $15 an hour.
3) – Expand Social Security by lowering the retirement age to 60, to be paid for by expanding payroll taxes to higher earners — who currently pay no Medicare and Social Security taxes on income over $110,000.
4) – Free university education — to be paid for by taxing the rich and corporations. Eliminate crushing student debt.
Such demands would be much more likely to inspire people than what the “populist” Democrats are offering, and inspiration is the missing populist ingredient that the Democrats are organically incapable of provoking.

What’s preventing the Democrats from becoming inspirational? They know all too well that by venturing too far to the left they could easily instigate a real mass movement. And such a movement is not easily controlled and would inevitably demand much more than the corporate-minded Democrats are willing to concede, which, at this point, is virtually nothing aside from musty rhetoric.

Unlike the Republican’s populist turn to the right that created the now-defunct Tea Party, a true left turn would mean have the potential to rejuvenate the millions’ strong labor movement, while engaging tens of millions more into active political life, driving people to participate in mass marches, rallies, labor strikes and other forms of mass action.

This was what happened during the “old populism” in U.S. history, which the Democrats are taking their trendy namesake from. The populist movement of the late 1800’s was a genuine mass movement of workers and farmers, which briefly aligned in an independent political party, the People’s Party, also known as the populists.

The populist movement that included strike waves and local rural rebellions had nothing to do with the lifeless politics of the Democratic Party, and threatened the very foundation of America corporate power. The Democrats are keenly aware of this type of real populist “threat,” and they are willing to do anything to stop it.

For example, the Occupy movement proved that the Democrats fear real left populism much more than they fear far-right populism. We now know that the Obama administration worked with numerous Democratic Party mayors and governors across the nation to undermine and destroy the Occupy movement through mass arrests, police violence and surveillance. And because Occupy succeeded in changing the national conversation about income inequality, the Democrats were forced to engage with the rhetoric of the movement they dismembered, and now use the plagiarized language as proof of their “populism.”

Aside from Elizabeth Warren, the other rock star of the “new populism” conference was the nominally-independent “socialist” Bernie Sanders, who essentially functions in Congress as a Democrat. Sanders’ politics fits in perfectly with the rest of the progressive caucus Democrats, which is why he was invited to the conference. Sanders can perhaps outdo Warren when it comes to anti-corporate-speak; but like Warren he keeps his solutions vague and his movement building aspirations negligible.

If by chance Sanders chooses to run for president as an Independent — as many radicals are hoping — his fake populist politics and empty rhetoric are unlikely to drastically change, limiting any chance that a “movement” may emerge.

It’s doubtful that many people have been fooled by the “left turn” of the Democratic Party. But on a deeper level the politics of “lesser evilism” still haunts labor and community groups, and keeping these groups within the orbit of the Democratic Party is the ultimate purpose of this new, more radical speechifying. Until these groups organize themselves independently and create their own working class political party, the above politics of “populist” farce is guaranteed to continue. more


  1. I haven't followed the conference, but also a serious Populist movement should include real green energy movement (by real I mean one that threatens nationalizing any existing energy companies that hold solar/wind behind).

    But it is not 'fake'...rather it is testing/training the citizen's response (in classic USA political action fashion). Some discussion pieces like Shamus' will be published and then polling of the situation will be done, ratings on any TV show mentioning Populist will be reviewed...then political operatives will decide if anything Populist needs be inserted into the election platform.

    If Populist movement is desired, then now is the time to push these Populist talking points hard left. The classic 'moving the needle' aspect--for a major party to move the elite's stance, it needs serious grassroots push now on Warren and Sanders to tell them they aren't left enough. Not out of any hope of achieving all that is needed, but rather to force the elites into at least moving the needle in a left direction at all (instead of maintaining the status quo establishment stance).

    Also, not expecting Warren or Sanders to become president, but maybe candidates allowed into the elitest debates for further testing/polling the need for elitist movement...for them to test how little change is needed to keep the masses placid. The only reason the Populist movement of the 1890-1930 worked at all is because it became a legit threat to the elites of that era, so they gave in incrementally until workers/farmers finally stopped threatening the two-party system the elites have set up.

    1. I thought the conference a bit lame but I didn't consider it "fake" either. Pretty hard to argue the credential of Warren and Brown. (The rest, not so much) And yes, real Populists are lefties (real citizen banks, anyone? nationalized railroads?)

      Anyway, keep tuned. I intend to do quite a few posts on what folks should know about the real Populism. It is, by FAR, the most interesting progressive outbreak this country ever had!

    2. You and Tony have done excellent work here for years.

      But for years I've wondered, and heard others wonder--what does it take to move the American people into action. The people seem to move as a herd of deer, when caught in the field by the shining light, staring while being put in the sights, then running blindly when the shot is fired, one way or another wherever safety is perceived, adjusting blindly again as the next shot comes.

      And yet, we are not dumb animals--we are being actively misled by controlling interests, and as long as we can carve out an existence of sorts, we allow ourselves the luxury of apathy and maybe find a voice of simple cynicism in place of taking action against these well-insulated and well-protected controllers.

      I also wonder if we are really that different from our great-grandfathers of the Populist movement era--I think they as humans had the very same characteristics and would have loved to have had the luxury to be apathetic...but were just living closer to the edge of survival, in an era without fallback comforts. When they got hurt or sick--they died. When they got old--they died. When they lost their farm--they died.

      So, maybe that is why they became more easily convinced than modern folks to join the Populist movement, to join Unions, to dump out their milk in protests, to set up tent camps when the Wobblies called a strike, and come back for more when the Pinkertons finished crushing it. They found their voice when no one else was speaking the truth, to organize a local union when no one else was standing up, to write up their economic/political concerns and drive around to every farm in the region to create a voting block.

      In our times, we have been blessed with comforts for a couple generations, enough time to have lost track of even our family history of these times...and also there have been generations of ways to divide and confuse issues, to keep people from taking stands against the mismanagement of the economy and environment. To the point where once again the fears of death again are real for us--from mother nature's droughts and severe storms, from unemployment leaving us homeless and starving, from malaise causing our children to give up on life--where people again are finally saying 'enough, what can I do to change this?'

      But these people will still need to find common cause to join a Populist movement to push back against these controlling interests. They need to not expect perfection in all things, but to expect progressive movement in key areas--in banking, in energy, in food, in water, in air (and if more can be agreed upon, so be it). And in the process of achieving movement there, won't some of the other issues that currently distract us start to drift away?