“Democratic movements are initiated by people who have individually managed to attain a high level of personal political self-respect,” historian Lawrence Goodwyn wrote nearly four decades ago. “They are not resigned; they are not intimidated.”
“The game is rigged,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said at last week’s New Populism Conference, as if summoned forth from history by Goodwyn’s observation: “We can whine about it. We can whimper. Or we can fight back.
“Me? I’m fighting back.”
Against the Odds
Goodwyn’s quote comes from a book called “The Populist Moment: a Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America,” and it’s exciting to think that we might be facing another such historical moment. But Goodwyn warned of the obstacles such a movement inevitably faces: “cultural roadblocks,” the difficulty of enlisting supporters, educating them and encouraging them into action, and the powerful forces arrayed against movements of this kind.
Goodwyn also warned of “intense cultural conflict with many built-in advantages accruing to the partisans of the established order.” Anybody who has ever watched Fox News, or seen Bill Clinton sing from billionaire Pete Peterson’s hymnal at one of Peterson’s “Fiscal Summits,” can attest to the prophetic force of that 1978 observation.
Against such odds, what will it take to make the new populist movement a reality?
First, a Vision
“We need more than just bumper sticker phrases,” Rev. William Barber II of the NAACP said at the conference. Rev. Barber, who spoke of the connection between “academia and activism,” quoted a fellow theologian as saying that “prophetic moral vision seeks to penetrate despair so that new futures can be believed and embraced by us.”
“The slaves didn’t figure out how to get out of slavery by first figuring out how to get out,” said Rev. Barber. “They got out by first being driven by a vision that said, ‘Up above my head/I hear music in the air … before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home with my Lord and be free.’
“They had a vision to get out,” said Rev. Barber, “before they figured out the ways to accomplish that.”
To be real, the New Populism must also have a vision. In Rev. Barber’s words, “Imagination must come before implementation.”
“There must be people who keep alive the vocation of imagination,” said Rev. Barber, “who keep conjuring up alternative visions.”
Rev. Barber’s populist agenda was similar to that of Sen. Warren, who outlined hers in the day’s keynote address:
“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.
“We believe workers have a right to come together, to bargain together and to rebuild America’s middle class – and we’re willing to fight for it.
“We believe in equal pay for equal work – and we’re willing to fight for it.
“We believe equal means equal, and that’s true in the workplace and in marriage, true for all our families – and we’re winning that fight right now.”
There was a strong sense of unanimity of purpose at the conference, which took place in Washington – a city whose political and media elite continue to argue that these goals are politically impossible. Rev. Barber had a response for that:
“One of the things that prophetic moral vision must do is restore the kind of hope that is the refusal to accept the reading of reality that is the majority opinion at the particular time.”
In a political world which is fixated on – and imposes arbitrary limits on– the “art of the possible,” the importance of this subversively indefatigable hope cannot be overstated.
Which is not to say that bipartisanship, albeit of a more transformative nature, was not on the table at the New Populism conference. Rev. Barber said that “we have to have language … that’s not bound by partisanship, but gets into people’s souls and asks them … Don’t you still want to be human?”
“I don’t want people to go left or right. I want them to go deeper into who we’re called to be. “
Rev. Barber went on to talk about his experience in Mitchell County, North Carolina – which is 89 percent Republican and 99 percent white – where he was invited to speak and the listeners formed a local chapter of the NAACP and supported his economic agenda. “Don’t tell me it can’t be done,” he said of populist-themed “fusion politics.”
Polling data shows that this kind of left/right fusion politics, however utopian it may sound in a time of polarized politics, has genuine potential. Eight out of ten voters polled believe – perhaps “understand” would be a better word – that economic inequality is a real problem in our society. More than two-thirds of those polled believe the government should do more to address it.
As many as three out of four Republicans opposes the Social Security budget cuts long promoted by the Republican leadership and centrist/corporatist Democrats. More than 80 percent of Americans believe that we need new rules for Wall Street and that the government has not done enough to hold bankers accountable. More than nine out of ten believe we need financial oversight to keep the system fair. Most Americans believe the government’s top priority should be job creation.
On issue after issue, the public – often including most Republicans – supports economic positions that could accurately be described as “populist.” (See PopulistMajority.org for more details.) These figures validate Rev. Barber’s experience and suggest that a truly nonpartisan populist movement is a realistic possibility. As Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) put it in his conference talk, “We are in a populist moment: the question is, What are we going to do about it?”
There are signs, however preliminary, of a potential “fusion” coalition in today’s party politics. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio spoke at the conference about partnering with conservative Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana on a bill to rein in “too big to fail” banks. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the democratic-socialist independent from Vermont, cosponsored a bill to audit the Federal Reserve with libertarian Republican Rep. Ron Paul.
Making Populism Real
But, as several conference speakers affirmed, elected officials will not generate a populist movement. There is too much money in our political system to make that realistic, despite the popularity of populist ideas. It’s much more comfortable for most politicians to preserve a status quo in which the GOP represents the economic far right, the “centrist” Democrats offer an economic platform that’s too often indistinguishable from Republican free-market conservatism of earlier eras, and truly populist leaders aren’t even on the ballot.
Profound social change – whether in the agrarian economy of the 1900s, the growth of labor rights, civil rights, women’s rights, or in other transformative historical moments – has always begun with a popular movement. “Politicians see the light when they feel the heat,” as Rep. Ellison said.
Is the New Populism real? Its footprints can be seen in the polling data, in the experiences of Rev. Barber and other conference speakers, and in the lessons of history. It exists as potentiality in the hearts and minds of the American people. It exists in the moral outrage that millions of people feel toward the injustice in our economic data, our cultural prejudices, and the unjust laws which remain on our books. It exists in our history and in our values.
But there is much work to do to move the New Populism from the world of nascent possibility to the world of transformative reality. It will be hard work – the work of expressing opinions that are sometimes unpopular, the work of showing up at demonstrations beneath the glare of hostile strangers (or hostile law enforcement), the work of calling strangers and friends, of starting petitions or email lists, the work of educating ourselves in the work of educating others.
There will be the work of committing deeply to struggle that at times will seem unwinnable, the work of remembering Dr. King’s words: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It will feel like a leap of faith at times, as if stepping off a cliff into the chasm of an unknown future.
But it must be done, and it can be done. Who will step forward and volunteer to do this work? If you're reading these words, hopefully you're ready to answer that question for yourself.