Should populists declare victory and go home? Despite money-drenched politics, Washington gridlock, the richest few capturing virtually all the income growth in the economy and corporations deserting the country to avoid taxes, the fanciful notion that populists have captured the Democratic Party is gaining popularity in the political chatter of the idle summer months.
Politico argues that “an ascendant progressive and populist movement" is "on the verge of taking over the party." Sen. Elizabeth Warren, electric on campaign trail and in social media, is touted as “Wall Street’s nightmare” and a potential challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hillary’s supporters respond with a hearty embrace, arguing that there’s no notable issue difference between Hillary and Warren. Blogger Matt Yglesias trumpets that Democrats are more united than ever, with no major issues dividing them.
The Democratic Leadership Council, center of the New Democrat assault on liberals, has shut its doors. The Rubinomics of the New Dems – featuring corporate trade accords, financial deregulation, fiscal austerity, and starving public investments – was discredited in the economic collapse. And now The Democratic Strategist, a New Democrat offshoot, features a “strategy memo” by James Vega arguing that progressives should declare victory and pick up their winnings. Rather than continuing to wage “a fight for the soul of the party,” challenging conservative Democrats in primaries, they should follow the example set by Warren, lay out a popular populist agenda, rally support for it, and invite all Democrats to join.
Plaintively, Vega argues that the New Dems have seen the error of their ways, understanding that financial deregulation in the 1990s was a mistake and that Obama’s Grand Bargain strategy in 2010-2011 was an error. Centrists have learned the need for a more populist stance and policies. Progressives should claim victory and hang up their pitchforks, eschewing “accusations of personal corruption and loyalties to groups like Wall Street.”
Warren, Vega argues, is the exemplar of this. She lays out a popular populist agenda and promises to fight for it. She consolidates support and mobilizes energy. She doesn’t push off of other Democrats, name names, or act divisively, thus she can “invite moderates in.”
Vega warns the populists that they can’t combine the Warren “progressive agenda” approach with the traditional “struggle for the soul of the party” at the same time. The one tries to unify a political party around a broad agenda; the latter tries to “purify” it by defining some groups as unacceptable.
This argument is like the summer’s morning fog; it evaporates in the light. The problem for Democrats isn’t that the populists are too powerful, but that they are too weak. Groups like Moveon.org, Daily Kos, Democrats for America, the Working Families Party, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee have only begun to build the capacity to recruit and support candidates. At the state and local level, Progressive Majority is one of the few operations that helps recruit and train populist challengers. Labor unions still tend to be less active in primaries, gearing up only to get members out in the general election. Hillary Clinton is unique in many ways, but her ability to build a campaign-in-waiting, with millions already committed, demonstrates a potency that populists cannot match.
The argument over the direction of the party has always been about vision, agenda and leaders. The brutal battles are over issues, particularly defining issues that are tied to differing directions. What Warren personifies is the reality that the most attractive leaders in the Senate (Sherrod Brown, Jeff Merkley, Tammy Baldwin, Bernie Sanders, John Whitehouse and others) and House (like Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva of the Progressive Caucus), activists of the Rising American Electorate (young, people of color, single women), and the organized base of the party – labor, citizen action groups, civil rights, women’s and environmental groups – all support an agenda far bolder and more populist than that embraced by the Obama White House.
With Hillary’s strength virtually suffocating the race for the nomination, progressives have already set out to lay out that agenda, consolidate the support for it, and elevate leaders who champion it. They do so both in the hope that Hillary will move to adopt their themes and reforms, and to build an independent movement for change.
This isn’t about electoral messaging or a settling of scores out of personal pique against those who got it wrong in the past. What is driving the new populism is an economy that does not work for working families. The concern about extreme inequality isn’t because some are rich beyond all measure. It is because the wealthiest 1 percent are capturing virtually all of the income growth of the society, meaning that everyone is struggling simply to stay afloat.
And, this isn’t an accident, an act of fate, a natural phenomena. This is, as Warren states, because they rigged the rules to benefit themselves. It won’t be changed without fierce battles to dislodge powerful and entrenched interests and change the rules. Curbing the financial casino requires taking on Wall Street. Getting trade right and reviving good jobs at home requires taking on the multinationals. Making the investments we need in areas vital to our future requires forcing the rich and corporations to pay their fair share of taxes. Enabling workers to capture a fair share of the profits and productivity they help generate requires empowering workers and curbing CEO excesses. Providing a fair and healthy shot for every child requires reversing the conservative retreats of the last decades. The list can go on.
These fights will be at the center of our political debates over the next years. They will be pitched battles against powerful interests. Politicians will have to decide which side they are on. And the new populism has no chance unless a powerful movement is built that is prepared to elect champions to office and take on those who stand in the way.