Ferguson; ISIS; Ebola; accelerating climate change; growing inequality; deepening poverty; an election likely to worsen, not reduce paralysis – pessimism of the intellect is easy these days; optimism of the will takes some work.Tonight at its annual Gala, the Campaign for America’s Future will honor sources of light in this dark time. (To get tickets go here.)
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio won a sweeping victory with a populist campaign in the heart of Wall Street. And in office, despite getting blindsided by Governor Andrew Cuomo and assailed by the corporate school reformers, he’s forcing change. Today in New York, 50,000 children are headed into preschool, developers are pressed to build affordable housing, more workers enjoy guaranteed paid sick days, and soon will see a higher minimum wage.
Saru Jayaraman, founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, has helped drive the movement to lift the minimum wage and end the discrimination against tipped workers. And cities and states across the country are moving, with workers in Seattle headed towards a $15.00 an hour minimum.
AFSCME President Lee Saunders has led the popular rebellion against right-wing governors and their assault on public education, unions, the poor and the right to vote. And now voters in Michigan, Kansas, Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin are calling the right to account.
Beneath the paralysis in Washington and the noise of our money-drenched elections, there is a populist movement stirring. Like all movements, it grows in fits and starts, and takes form slowly. Occupy Wall Street was its first visible manifestation, challenging the 1 percent, spreading to over 200 cities in the country, and indirectly providing President Obama with the central message for his reelection. Fast food worker strikes in over 150 cities have helped propel the demand for a higher minimum wage. Walkouts by federal contract workers pushed President Obama to lift their wages, and now are calling for a “good jobs executive order” that will reward employers that respect their employees’ rights over those who trample them. Hundreds of thousands march in New York to demand action on climate change.
The new populism is visible in a left-right congressional coalition that is forming against continuing ruinous corporate trade policies. Moral Monday protests against the assault on voting rights and the vulnerable are mobilizing thousands in North Carolina and spreading to Georgia. South Carolina and now Indiana. A feisty citizen’s opposition is growing in rural areas to block big oil’s effort to frack their lands.
We can see it in the church and the culture. Pope Frances condemns the modern “idolatry of money” and the “tyranny of unfettered capitalism.” Bizarrely, a 685-page book by an obscure French economist about wealth inequality soared to the top of the best-seller lists next to Danielle Steele’s steamy new novel, “First Sight.”
Forceful leaders are emerging like Senators Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sanders; Reps. Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva, Jan Schakowski and their Congressional Progressive Caucus; mayors in New York, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and more.
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 who 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.
What do new populists believe? They understand, as Sen. Warren puts it, that the game is rigged. Too few people control too much money, and they use that money to fix the rules to protect their privileges. Now we are five years into a “recovery” in which the top 10 percent are capturing all of the income growth, while the rest lose ground.
Americans are skeptical of government because they believe it wastes their money and serves entrenched interests rather than the general good. But the new populists are coming to understand that they have to take back government and use it to fix the rules, guaranteeing everyone equal opportunity and a fair shot.
The new populists understand that fundamental change requires taking on powerful and entrenched interests. Vital public investments require fair taxes on the rich and the corporations. Sensible trade policies require taking on tax and trade rules created by multinationals. Affordable health care isn’t possible without overcoming the drug company and hospital lobbies that have made our system the most expensive in the world. Empowering workers, and guaranteeing decent pay and minimal benefits must roll over a powerful corporate lobby. Leading the global green industrial revolution requires challenging Big Oil.
But the new populists are ready for the fight. “This is a fight over economics, a fight over privilege, a fight over power,” as Elizabeth Warren puts it, “But deep down, it is a fight over values. These…are progressive values. These are America’s values. And these are the values we are willing to fight for.”
This isn’t a fight that gets won in one election or one administration. The elections three weeks from now will disappoint. Conservatives are likely to gain from public dismay about the economy. But their ideas have already been tried and failed. They are standing in the way of the change the country needs. Their obstruction will only help build the populist stirrings.
We live, as the Chinese curse terms it, in “interesting times.” The old conservative era is over; its ideas shattered. The struggle now is about what comes next – and that will be driven by people’s movements only beginning to find their voice.