These remarks were prepared for delivery at The New Populism Conference in Washington, May 22, 2014.
What is the new populism? The Princeton dictionary defines populism as “a political doctrine that supports the rights and powers of the common people in their struggle with the privileged elite.”
Not bad for a dictionary.
The New Populism arises from the stark truth about today’s America: Too few people control too much money and power, and they’re using that control to rig the rules to protect and extend their privileges.
This economy does not work for working people. This isn’t an accident. It isn’t an act of God. It isn’t due to forces of technology and globalization that can’t be changed. It isn’t a mistake. It is a power grab.
Decades of deregulation and top-end tax cuts, of soaring CEO pay and assaults on unions, of conservative myths and market fundamentalism have recreated Gilded Age extremes of wealth and power. Once more a new American plutocracy is emerging, doing what plutocrats always do – corrupting government to protect and expand their fortunes.
Americans don’t tolerate self-perpetuating aristocracies easily. Opposition to aristocratic wealth is as American as apple pie, dating back to the American Revolution, to Jefferson who warned about the “aristocracy of monied corporations.”
The Populist Tradition
The movement that gave populism its name swept out of the Plains states in the late 19th century as small farmers and steelworkers, day laborers and sharecroppers came together to take on the trusts, the railroads, the distant banks that were impoverishing them.
They railed against a government that handed public lands to the railroads, kept interest rates high, coddled monopolies and cracked the heads of workers trying to organize.
But in challenging the corrupted government, they came to a profound realization: that in the emerging industrial economy, simply cutting back government and limiting its powers would only free monopolies and banks to gouge even more from workaday Americans.
They concluded that they had to take back the government, turning it from the arm of the privileged to the people’s ally.
This led to two other challenges. First, they had to mobilize people to counter what Roosevelt called “organized money.”
And second, protest wasn’t enough. They had to invent new ideas, sweeping reforms to make the economy work for working people.
That populist movement lasted only a few years as an independent party, but the reforms it championed set the agenda for progressives for more than half a century – the minimum wage, the eight-hour workday, antitrust laws, the progressive income tax, a flat ban on subsidies to private corporations, and worker cooperatives. It mobilized millions around a new monetary policy. It pushed to expand democracy through direct elections of senators, initiatives and referenda. There’s a direct line from the Omaha Platform of the People’s Party in 1892 to FDR’s Four Freedoms and Economic Bill of Rights, to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, whose 50th anniversary we honor this week.
Today’s new populism stands in that tradition.
People aren’t worried that the rich have lots of money. This isn’t about envy; it is about power – that the privileged and entrenched interests rig the game, so the economy does not work for working people.
Billionaires like Sheldon Anderson toy with politicians as if they were miniature plastic puppets. Millionaires pay lower taxes than their secretaries. Multinationals stash profits abroad and pay lower taxes than mom-and-pop stores. After all, as hotel magnate Leona Helmsley famously said, “only little people pay taxes.”
Wall Street bankers – the folks whose excesses blew up the economy and cost millions their homes and their jobs – were bailed out. Now they are back, posturing as masters of the universe once more, apparently immune from prosecution for the epidemic of fraud they profited from. Jails, after all, are for little people.
The top 1 percent is capturing fully 95 percent of the nation’s income growth. CEO salaries are up and corporate profits hit record heights, while workers incomes are stagnating and insecurity is rising.
Mobilized People vs. Mobilized Money
What will it take to make this economy work for working people again? Mobilized people will need to take on organized money. Investments in areas vital to our future can be paid for with progressive taxes. But redistribution isn’t enough. Sweeping structural reforms – expanding shared security, making work pay, curbing Wall Street speculation, balancing trade and more – are essential to any new deal.
The American people get it. They don’t need to be convinced on the issues. CAF is issuing a report today at PopulistMajority.org that documents the simple fact: the majority of Americans are with us. Citizens United? Four of five Americans want it repealed, including three-fourths of Republicans. Raise the minimum wage? No question. Curb Wall Street? Lloyd Blankfein may think Goldman Sachs is doing “God’s work,” but Americans want more accountability. Protect Social Security and Medicare? Even Tea Partiers agree.
This new populism is not something we have to invent. It is already stirring. It is Occupy Wall Street putting Gilded Age inequality at the center of our political debate. It’s exploited low-wage workers protesting fast-food restaurants in over 150 cities. A left-right congressional coalition forming against continuing ruinous corporate trade policies. Moral Monday protests against the assault on voting rights and the vulnerable mobilizing thousands in North Carolina and are spreading to Georgia and South Carolina. A feisty citizen’s opposition growing in rural areas to block big oil’s effort to frack their lands.
We can see it in the culture. The new Pope condemning the modern “idolatry of money" and the “tyranny of unfettered capitalism.” Or bizarrely, a 685-page book by an obscure French economist about wealth inequality heading the best-seller lists along with Danielle Steele’s steamy new novel, "First Sight."
Forceful leaders are emerging like senators Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sanders; Rep. Keith Ellison; New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. The demand for change is rising from activists in the heart of the Obama majority, the rising American electorate of millennials, people of color and single women that have fared the worst in this economy. The organized base of the Democratic Party, from unions to community and civil rights groups, women and environmentalists, are pushing an agenda far bolder and broader than that now before the public.
Democrats in the Senate have now moved to a “fair shot” agenda, calling for raising the minimum wage, pay equity, paid family leave, and lowering student loan interest rates paid for by taxing millionaires. A Forbes Magazine columnist warns the GOP that they can’t ignore the new “populist wave.” Sen. Rand Paul argues that Republicans can’t simply be the party of “fat cats, rich people and Wall Street.” It might be too late for that.
Washington is gridlocked by Republican obstruction, so people are driving reforms from the bottom up. The minimum wage is being hiked from Hawaii to Maryland to Seattle, where it is headed to $15 an hour. Californians voted to tax the rich to invest in schools. Cleveland uses government procurement to support locally based, worker-owned cooperatives. Over a hundred cities have joined the call for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.
Pundits suggest that Republicans have the advantage in the low-turnout 2014 elections, with the Democratic base discouraged by the lousy economy. Elites in both parties warn against a new populism, as if the old politics held any answers for people.
But this isn’t about one election or one leader. The pressure for change is only beginning. People are waking up to the fact that the game is rigged. They won’t tolerate it for long. It will take muckraking, organizing, teaching, protests and demonstrations, new ideas and new allies. It will face fierce resistance. The wealthy and entrenched interests will spend lavishly to defend their privileges. Our system is designed to clog change, not facilitate it.
But when the people speak, politicians listen. And this new populist movement has only just begun. The stakes are fundamental – whether the democracy can in fact check the power of great wealth and entrenched interests. This is the challenge facing our democracy and for each one of us privileged to be its citizens.