Editor’s note: this item is a reader submission from Christopher Burks, a University of Arkansas law student who has worked for the John Edwards for President campaign, the Democratic Party of Arkansas, the AFL-CIO, and in local Ozark politics.
Ozark Hill Country Populism is alive and well above the land of Wal-Mart and, if employed with a clear call incorporated across all messaging, such economic populism will now win Democrats campaigns across demographically diverse districts.
II. Fire on the Mountain
“The People,” yells the bearded, foot-stomping speaker. “The People,” thunders the fiery, ever-louder man, his face shaking as his calls bounce around the dimly lit basement barroom, unable to contain the near wrath within.
“Two Words: The People.” Ever louder, this cry reverberates several more times in the course of what can’t be described as standard political stump speech.
Few calls are so impassioned, so fiery, that they make the leap to something beyond a mere sound bite. But it is undeniable that such a rallying cry can sear itself into the popular imagination.
Cesar Chavez stood in solidarity with farm laborers and cried for dignity. William Jennings Bryan proclaimed farmers and laborers were one and cried for a monetary policy that didn’t hang people out to dry in the harsh winds of famine. Huey Long cried that every man should be a King.
King cried for peace and reconciliation, but his Dream was delivered at a march organized for jobs and justice.
Bryan, Long, Chavez, and King were products of differing times and ideologies, but all knew that economic security was the way forward for workers and each punctured the air with cries to stop the robber barons in what each viewed as a gilded age.
Ultimately, though, clarion calls can too become coda. Men and nations may become a caricature of their former imagined selves, but, here atop a beautiful Ozark hill ensconced in the full majesty of fall colors, “The People” is finding its place amongst the rallying cries of yonder lore and is cementing the political consciousness of the citizenry, ever mindful of the motto of the Great State of Arkansas:
“Regnat Populus. The People Rule.”
III. 21st Century Economic Populism
The common thread weaving through the clarion calls above is clear: populism that worked.
The bearded man’s cry of “The People” was economic populism. The local paper said it best: “Jordan built his campaign on populist themes, asserting he’s the ‘real deal’ and that a vote for him is a vote for The People.” Fayetteville Arkansas Mayor-elect Lioneld Jordan’s strand of economic populism is, however, a little different.
Encompassed by Jordan’s call, this 21st century strand of political ideology is blaring from old bar basements and new twitter feeds, whether from Arkansas or from North Carolina, and according to some, sweeping the country in this time of economic uncertainty.
Call it another confluence of coincidence, but this brand of populism is best described by its true colors: Green and Blue.
Green, of course, for the environment, Blue for blue collar.
This modern Green and Blue populism cuts across regional cleavages and wins in Appalachia proper or piedmont, Texas plains or hills.
A political scientist might say traditional Appalachian Hill country populism comes from the economic, demographic, and isolated geographic factors of the areas, but Senator Jim Webb probably would say it has a lot to do with the subsistence farmin’, big-business and government fightin’, politically independent Scots-Irish who migrated into the region. This upland, and Ozark, populism, more in style than substance, united small farmers who cared about the land and down state immigrant laborers who wanted basic economic opportunity.
Whether you get your political wisdom from sipping tea with V.O. Key or drinking whiskey with Mudcat Saunders, the reality is Appalachia has always had a distinct strain of populism separate from the more Lutheran and Catholic, or German and Scandinavian, roots of the populist farmers of the Upper Midwest.
Political scientists may say a deep and peripheral split is solidifying, but the eminent sociologist John Shelton Reed, the De Toqeuville of Dixie, has always held that hill country Appalachia is different and Democrats are treading in a little hot water in Appalachia right now. There is obviously some value in talking the talk, and Mudcat Saunders helping a Nextel CEO to relate to Southwestern Virginia good ole boys didn’t hurt, but a shift towards green and blue populism has to be embedded deeper than expressing cultural affinity through bluegrass songs or NASCAR trucks.
In Fayetteville, Arkansas this fall, Mayor Lioneld Jordan didn’t have to “triangulate” or deeply study a way to gain the support of otherwise conservative working class voters on his way to a 57%-43% win in a runoff election. Although Ozark populism has cross-bred many times over with Mountain Republicanism, there has always been a tradition of labor and farmer populists in the old-growth Ozarks. The most prominent such Ozark Hill Country populist was Democrat Orval Faubus who, before falling into the segregationist majority’s moral abyss to hang onto his office, was the son of a poor farmer and firebrand of a populist who rained down scorn, especially upon any who attacked welfare recipients, from the hills of nearby Madison County.
Today, there is a strong liberal base in the sometimes professorial electorate of the land-grant college town of Fayetteville, but there are also equal segments of business minded Republicans and working class voters whose environmental consciences are growing in the face of manufacturing declines and an ever-flattening global marketplace.
In the mayoral race this fall, some mainstream liberals (you can call them “limousine” or “wine-track” liberals) supported the more established Democratic incumbent, who used bland and conciliatory language about “balanced government.” However, the working class Ozark voter, who didn’t vote for Obama, came out in force for Jordan and his “populist mantras” that were endorsed by the Sierra Club, local Green Party, local Police and Firefighters, and and all the other previous general election candidates who didn’t make the run-off. Setting aside party identification and incumbent job approval ratings, Lioneld Jordan swept into office aside the coattails of these voters, many fresh from the factories in coverall Dickies, who embody the hard working ethos of previous generations of subsistence farmers who respected politicians that looked after their land and health.
Congressman Elect Larry Kissell’s North Carolina Eighth Congressional District, which stretches east of Charlotte to the Atlantic coast, isn’t in Appalachia proper, but it shares some “mountain politics” traits. Kissel, a former textile mill worker whose employer had shut down, and an outspoken populist, ran on the slogan “Someone Working… For a Change. Some of his policy and language might have been dime-a- dozen protectionist fare, but he forcefully linked textile factory closures in his district with the need for a green energy and health policy, and made that a centerpiece of his campaign. It was a winning populist message based on green jobs.
The United Steelworkers have taken this message nationwide. The Steelworker partnership with the Sierra Club is not only about green labor and union policies; it is about selling these policies with language that resonates with the bluest of blue collar factory workers. In addition to President Leo Gerard, fiery Steelworkers political director Chuck Roca, with his own Texas Hill County populism, has spread an aggressive message of green jobs and has made a quantifiable difference in key congressional districts across the land. The ear-splitting Rocha is one of the many perfect pitchmen for this populism: a union card-carrying, Hispanic Redneck former factory worker who rails against the injustices and excess of our age. Think equal parts King, Chavez, Bryan, and Long.
Rocha’s language recognizes what another attuned politician, North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley, figured out some time ago: you have to speak authentically in the language of King of the Hill to win over such South Park and Sam’s Club Republicans.
IV. “They oughta get a rich man to vote like that“
Who are the voters that will respond to this green and blue populist message?
Well, if you read The Democratic Strategist, I’m sure you have an idea, but here are some key points from the excellent work, The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of a Mass Upper Middle Upper Class, by Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz:
• The white working class will decline, but it remains a potent short-term voting bloc that responds to economic messaging even though it has trended away from Democrats across all regions, especially in the South.
• Traditional economic populism has its limits, but a New Deal-style economic populism that focuses on economic and health security and opportunity will play well with both the declining white working class and the expanded upper middle class
Further, Blue-Green Coalitions: Constraints and Possibilities in the Post 9-11 Political Environment suggests:
[A] lower and working class environmental activism rooted in public health concerns emerged separately, but simultaneously with, upper class conservationism and preservationism rooted in economic and leisure concerns.
The key take away is that there must be a “labor environmentalism” that is “rooted in concern for the health and well being of people.”
You may say this definition of “labor environmentalism” that is built on a blue and green message is overbroad and all Democrats incorporate such a core message, but don’t get caught up in the definitions.
Perhaps the choice isn’t whether to create blue and green labor environmentalism, but whether Democrats will aggressively employ the language and policies of such a coalition that resonates with working class voters across districts now. Speaking passively and only through some limited channels about post-partisan balanced government, while effective for a newly elected and relatively inexperienced President, will not stem the slide of white working class voters away from Democrats. Yelling as loud as we can, at every opportunity we can, in every way we can, that we must invest in green jobs and give The People the same opportunity for healthcare as Congress and Federal Employees have will.
V. “In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold.”
More Democrats must follow the example of Lioneld Jordan and Larry Kissell and employ a clear and authentic green and blue economic call incorporated across all messaging. Of course, adopting the green and blue policies is another matter, but, as Bill Clinton may have said “good policy makes for good politics.”
In order to continue winning Democrats must organize and work this message across several distinct channels:
(1) Clear Clarion Call & Message
Democrats must incorporate an authentic clarion call, preferably more powerful than a simple slogan, that underlies and is encapsulated in all messaging during the campaign. Gore and Lieberman’s “The People vs. The Powerful” simply doesn’t say as much as Larry Kissell’s “Someone Working…For a Change.” Such a clear economic populist message more often than not works in a “V” to outflank an opponent by gaining support from otherwise socially conservative working class voters without using any socially conservative language.
(2) Early investment
Out-work your opponent and invest early. Don’t simply spend money to gain money (e.g., the Richardson for President Campaign’s 2007 strategy in Iowa), but invest early with a clear message for the purpose of getting the message across. Don’t think of the economic populist message as a way to finance a campaign that later shifts to more conciliatory or vacuous language.
(3) Detailed Targeting
Take your message where the people are and invest significant time and resources into targeting the voters most likely to respond to your message and vote. A simple spreadsheet isn’t enough. Multiple data streams and interfacing databases are a good start.
(4) Leveraging Endorsements and Interest Group Outreach
Lioneld Jordan prominently displayed the endorsement of the Sierra Club, local unions, and Green Party in all his campaign material. Larry Kissell included his slogan on all messaging. Do the outreach and then employ significant alliances across all channels.
(5) Strategic Planning
Plan to win. Plan to win even if it involves a run-off or contest that could drag on for months.
(6) Peer to Peer Canvassing
Take the message directly to the people. Build a volunteer army and ordain grassroots groups that are segmented to allow the best possible peer to peer outreach. Obviously, door to door works best and live calls next.
(7) Outreach to Social Media and Bloggers
Simply because internet access corresponds to income, don’t assume that this message won’t work across the Web. Treat bloggers as constituents deserving your attention and authentic messaging. Any politician ignores social media at their own peril, and especially the one afraid that young people on social networks don’t matter.
VI. Onward, Kingfisher
When a candidate or consultant spits out some inauthentic slogan like “The People v. The Powerful,” I wonder what Long or Chavez would say.
As Martin Luther King asked: “Shall we tell them the work is too hard?”
No, we shouldn’t, and the hard work of our grand experiment in self-government presses forward. Perhaps the beauty of American constitutional democracy, both our republican representative institutions and our unique vehicles of direct democracy, is never sullied by the sometimes harsh realities that underlie pure economic capitalism. But if there is ever such a conflict between the framework that sustains the common good and that which drives the individual in a marketplace, the battle to employ blue and green populism is as good a place as any to enter the scuffle.