Probably no term in the political lexicon evokes more confusion that ‘populism,’ which has been carelessly tossed around to describe philosophies ranging from progressive to outright racist demagoguery. Fortunately we have Mike Lux to straighten out the mess and put the term in modern context to describe what it means for progressives and how it can be leveraged to help Democrats win a stable majority. In his HuffPo post “A Modern Progressive Populist Platform,” Lux explains:
With voters angry at the establishment and incumbents in general, and deals in particular, Democrats who are defenders of the established order are working overtime to beat down the idea of winning elections by using scary populism. Using faulty historical analogies, polls with carefully designed questions in order to elicit certain answers, and the specter of far-right anti-intellectualism as reasons not to be populist, they fear what might happen if Democrats actually start listening to real voters and make the changes people were promised in 2008.
The good news is that if the Democrats running for office in this tough, tough year will respond to the anti-establishment anger that is out there and ride it, they can do better than anyone is currently predicting. Of course, if that happened, it would be a very bad thing for corporate Democrats who don’t want anything to change, because it would prove the lie that the only way for Democrats to win is to kow-tow to special interest power and conventional wisdom.
Lux takes writers Matt Bai and Kevin Mattson to task for adding to the confusion about populism, and critiques Mattson’s article in the Aug. 3rd edition of The American Prospect:
…Mattson’s idea of a modern day populism is Sarah Palin, and if you accept that premise, it’s easy to see why he dislikes a populist message. He makes arguments unsupported by any polling numbers or actual knowledge of political dynamics, such as: “Since the 1960s, populism has succeeded in the right and produced few if any left-wing counterparts… There is no way to steer that boat back to left-wing shores.” He dismisses “recent attempts to paint Harry Truman as a raging populist” (apparently forgetting Truman’s 1948 stump speech: “These Republican gluttons of privilege… want a return of the Wall Street economic dictatorship… “).
Mattson’s most irritating tendency is to throw out sentences like: “Populism — because it glorifies the ‘common sense’ of the people — is prone to the sloppy, slapdash thinking of figures like Palin” and “Too often the advice to adopt populist rhetoric becomes advice to pander” and “Populism’s simplicity is its central fault.”…But a platform and message that does actually take on big corporate elites and an entrenched establishment does not have to wallow in simplicity, pandering and proud stupidity the way Palin-style right-wing populism does.
An important distinction. Then Lux rolls out what he terms “a winning progressive populist platform for the 21st century,” including the following elements (excerpted):
1. Making government work for the people, not the powerful. Our mission should not be to defend government, because government has screwed up a lot of the time, especially when corporate special interests control it as they have on most issues since the 1980s. Our mission instead is to wrest government from the clutches of the corporate interests who are feeding at the trough and turn government into something that can effectively serve and help middle- and lower-income Americans. There are all kinds of things about government that really are wasteful and don’t work — let’s not be afraid to name them:
Government contracting is as corrupt and inefficient as anything in American life. The federal budget currently has about $750 billion worth of contracts, and various groups have estimated we could save at least $100 billion worth of that a year (and probably a lot more) if we cleaned up the contracting process. Way too many contracts are no-bid contracts; way too many go to a few big companies like Halliburton who have cheated American taxpayers over and over and never seem to get penalized. Cost overruns are rarely punished, and businesses built into most contracts are a scandal.
While I give President Obama some credit for taking on some of the most egregiously wasteful military projects, the entire defense budget hasn’t been subjected to serious scrutiny in at least three decades. There is enough land and waste in there to give us hundreds of billions of dollars worth of savings without even questioning the War in Afghanistan or the troops still in Iraq. And think how much we could save over the next decade if there was a serious endgame strategy.
Corporations have captured far too many agencies in the federal government. We know now that the horror of the Gulf spill was caused directly by the failure of regulatory agencies in bed with the oil industry; we know that the financial meltdown was caused by the combination of Wall Street greed with regulatory agencies that looked the other way; we know that the anti-trust division of the Department of Justice has done nothing about the concentration of wealth and power in finance, health insurance, energy, and a host of other industries…
Government can and should create mechanisms to compete with and/or better bargain with big companies. A public option in health care and bargaining with drug companies over their prices were two huge ways to drive down health care costs, which we sadly chose to reject in the recent health care plan. Both would have saved tens of billions of taxpayer dollars.
…The number of tax loopholes and special provisions for big business in the federal tax code is also in the hundreds of billions of dollars a year, all stuck into tax bills thanks to corporate lobbyists. Provisions like the loophole on carried interest and the loophole that benefits foreign investment over American jobs that progressive populist Democrats have tried to reform this year are major examples…Progressive populists are not pro-government; we are in favor of a government independent enough of big special interests to work well, and strong enough to oversee big business effectively.
2. Collective action is as important as an effective government…Even as conservatives hate government, they also hate private actions that hold big business accountable and provide another kind of check on its power. Labor unions, community organizing, class action lawsuits, blogging and netroots organizing, consumer boycotts are all mocked and attacked by the free market worshippers, even though they are private citizens banding together to get things done.
Progressive populists know that we can’t rely on government alone to check corporate power. Working together and organizing collectively are key components in providing a way to keep big business from being too powerful. We need stronger labor unions, and policies to make collective bargaining easier, like the Employee Free Choice Act; we need to make it easier for lawyers, stockholders, and consumers to file class action lawsuits against corporate fraud and malfeasance…
3. Investing in people and a bottom up economic structure is the best way to grow the economy…We need world class schools. We need a health system where everyone is covered and preventative medicine helps keep us healthier. We need more money for Head Start, school lunches, and early childhood health and nutrition to help lift the poorest children so that they have a good chance to make it. We need big investments in our massively underfunded physical infrastructure, roads, bridges, schools, highways. We need to make sure every American has access to the highest quality high-speed internet service.
We also need for the federal government to actually have a jobs strategy, an industrial policy that helps nurture the industries of the future, like solar and wind power. Every other industrialized country has this kind of policy, and our future is being cannibalized because we don’t. Our trade deficit is a bigger long-term economic problem then the federal deficit, but because it benefits certain big special interests, we continue to avoid doing anything about it…
4. We are pro-business, but against oligarchy. Progressive populists believe in supporting and investing in entrepreneurship, small business, and the manufacturing jobs of tomorrow. The only kind of businesses we are against are overgrown oligarchies who are big enough to stifle competition, distort the marketplace for their own greed, and get special breaks from the government.
We expect businesses to live by the social contract and give back to the country that made it possible for them to do well by treating their workers and communities decently, not polluting the environment and paying a fair share of taxes. Progressive populism is better for business and the economy than the concentrations of wealth and power that have wreaked havoc in the financial, energy, telecom, and health care sectors. We believe in:
investing in the infrastructure that can help businesses grow
opening up government contracting so more companies, including small business, has a chance to get them
investing in quality public education so workers will be well-educated and trained for the workforce
investing in research and development to help the businesses of the future prosper
having an array of small business technical assistance and loan programs so that entrepreneurs can create healthy new businesses
preserving competition through rigorous anti-trust enforcement
5. We need to throw the moneychangers out of the temple. One of the reasons that I am so enthusiastically working with the MoveOn.org campaign to clean up corporate corruption in Washington is that our government and democracy cannot function effectively with the current system we have for campaign finance, special interests lobbying, and corporate money going into elections. A small group of big corporations in a few key sectors of our economy have come to dominate our federal government’s decision-making in legislative, executive, and regulatory policy. Defense and security contractors, health insurers, pharmaceutical companies, agribusiness, energy conglomerates, and Wall Street have concentrated more political power in fewer hands than at any time in our nation’s history, with the possible exception of the era of the robber barons. For the sake of our economy and our democracy, we need to break the inseparable link between big, corporate interests and our government. We need tough lobbying reform, public financing for campaigns, and we need to overturn the Citizens United decision.
Although as far as I know this is not true of Mattson, the anti-populist crowd in the Democratic Party tend to be financially and socially aligned with the corporate special interests — but they have one other thing in common with them: they are mostly not understanding how much economic pain the massive recession is causing to the American middle class. Real unemployment — after you count discouraged workers, along with temporary and part-time workers not by choice — is closer to 20% than 10%, and wages, incomes, and home prices are flat or worse, while the cost of essential items like groceries, gas, insurance, and college tuition have continued to go up too rapidly in price. The anger that is out there at both parties and elites of all stripes is real and palpable…
Lux adds that “…The throw-the-bums-out mood that caused the 2006 and 2008 wave elections is still in force. The only thing that’s changed is the perception of who the bums are.” if Dems don’t “respond to it with passionate politics and strong ideas,” Lux predicts we will lose this year and in 2012.
But he concludes that “A smart, tough-minded populism that is willing to take on the D.C. establishment that is in bed with the special-interest lobbyists is the only thing that will save the Democrats politically, and it is also a political platform that can rebuild our country again.”