The Populist Challenge: Moving On Up

Robert Borosage

The editors of The Boston Globe called on Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run for president this weekend, joining over 300,000 “Run Warren Run” activists who have already built the largest field operation of any candidate in Iowa.

The Globe argues that it would be a “mistake” for Hillary Clinton to be allowed to “coast to the presidential nomination without real opposition.” The editors point to big issues that deserve a serious debate: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), enforcement of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and the strategy for dealing with extreme inequality and the decline of the middle class.

The Globe editorial is yet another indication of the populist moment. Even Republican contenders now rail about inequality, as strategists in both parties believe the 2016 presidential race will go to the candidate with the most compelling economic populist argument.

The reason for this populist moment isn’t the misery of the poor, or the decline of the middle class. The poor have ever been with us. And the middle class has been struggling since the 1980s.

What is different now is that people are starting to understand that their struggles aren’t their own fault. They aren’t fate or acts of nature. They aren’t the inevitable products of inexorable forces like globalization and technology. After the banks blew up the economy, got bailed out and the 1 percent pocketed virtually all of the income growth coming out of the recovery, more and more people have come to realize that, as Warren has put it, the rules are rigged, the deck has been stacked by the few for the few.

Occupy Wall Street – the movement that swept across the country – played a historic part in building this realization. The courage of the Dreamers, the fast-food workers and the low-wage government contract workers demanding a fair deal captured public attention. President Obama smartly adopted this message for his re-election campaign, with Mitt Romney providing an easy foil. And Warren, only a freshman senator, has broken through with her focus on how the rules have rigged against working Americans.

Now there is an emerging consensus among Democrats around the need to lift the floor under working families: a higher minimum wage, earned sick days and paid family leave, pay equity, immigration reform, crackdown on wage theft, enforce worker protections, update overtime rules and affordable day care. Obama’s investment agenda – investment in infrastructure, pre-K and affordable college – also gains virtually universal support.

The real debate now centers on the structural ways the economy has been rigged to benefit the few.

Incomes policy: Will we not only lift the floor, but empower the middle and curb the excesses at the top? That requires government acting to empower workers to organize and bargain collectively (which was central to building the broad middle class in the first place). Perverse CEO compensation schemes give executives multi-million dollar personal incentives to loot their own companies. Changing that requires ending the tax break given to bonuses, linking corporate tax rates to the ratio of CEO to worker pay, making executive compensation transparent, and requiring shareholder approval of top pay packages.

Shared Security. Will we expand Social Security and extend Medicare and Medicaid, not cut them? With seniors headed into retirement without adequate pensions or savings, expanding shared security – and fixing our broken health care system – will become more needed and more popular.

Globalization. Will we change our failed globalization strategy that encourages companies to shift good jobs abroad and lowers wages at home? The debate over fast track trade authority and the TPP is simply a first step in that challenge. Cracking down on tax havens, forcing multinationals to pay the same tax rates as domestic companies and taking on currency manipulation by mercantilist countries are necessary first steps.

Wall Street. Will we curb Wall Street and dismantle banks that are too big to fail? The defense over Dodd-Frank – which Republicans want to dismantle – isn’t sufficient. We need to break up big banks, revive the Glass-Steagall protections separating consumer banking from other financial activities, tax financial speculation and hold bankers personally accountable for the fraud and crimes they commit.

Rebuild America. Will we make the public investments vital to our future and pay for them by insuring the rich and corporations pay their fair share of taxes? The modest tax-and-spend policy proposed by the president slows but does not reverse the hollowing out of vital government services – from education to R&D to the post office. To modernize our decrepit infrastructure, provide high quality education to all, give every child a fair start, and provide services that work for citizens – we’ll need far more public investment. That will require insisting that the rich and powerful pay their fair share in taxes. Investment income should be taxed at the same rates as workers pay. Multinationals should pay the same rates as domestic companies. A stronger tax on estates should curb the growth of dynastic wealth that the founders warned against.

Green Opportunity. Will we capture the lead in the green industrial revolution that will sweep the world? That requires redoubled efforts to move to renewable energy, to invest in the new energy-efficient inventions that will transform how we live.

Real Security. America now polices the world, wages two wars at once, uses drones to strike in seven countries and dispatches special forces for operations in 120 countries. We will never rebuild our own country if we continue to wage unending and costly wars abroad.

Cleaning out the Stables. Big money now perverts our elections; entrenched interests now buy and sell our legislators. We will not be able to make government work for working people without curbing big money and cleaning out corruption in our politics.

Increasingly this agenda is gaining traction across the activist base of the Democratic Party. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) offered his Economic Agenda for America. Warren has joined with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) on a Middle Class Prosperity Project, planning hearings on elements of this agenda across the country. The Congressional Progressive Caucus People’s Budget shows that we can afford to take this on. Both Martin O’Malley and Jim Webb, likely challengers to Clinton in the primaries, have moved boldly to champion elements of this agenda.

At the national level, Republican control of Congress stifles any progress on this agenda, forwarding instead a parade of horribles.

But at the state and particularly the urban level, motion is building. Cities across the country are lifting the minimum wage, not waiting for Washington. San Francisco and Los Angeles have pioneered new protections for workers. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio leads a national task force of mayors looking to use municipal power to address inequality. Using procurement and zoning to empower workers and lift wages stands in stark contrast with the boast of Republicans like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker that they have used government to bust unions and lower wages.

On April 18-20, CAF will join with National People’s Action, the Alliance for a Fair Society, USAction and dozens of other organizations to lay out a populist platform and map out strategies for driving reforms at the city and state level. As cities across the country move to raise the minimum wage, to crack down on payday lenders, to empower workers, clean up elections and drive new energy and energy efficiency, the movement will grow. And politicians will be forced to respond. (To read more and register to attend, go here)

Thus far, Clinton has largely chosen to absent herself from this debate as she prepares her candidacy. She has indicated her support for lifting the floor under workers. She’ll champion pay equity and day care and family friendly policies, as part of her lifelong commitment to working women.

But on the big structural challenges – Wall Street, our trade policies, empowering workers, curbing CEO excesses, expanding shared security, strategic investment and fair taxes – her views are still largely undefined. On security policy, she seems committed to a more interventionist position than the president. On money and politics, the drip, drip, drip of revelations about Clinton Inc. eat away at her credibility as a people’s champion against big-money corruptions.

Much has changed over the past months. A year ago, Hillary Clinton’s experience, prominence and the Clinton powerhouse left her without a serious challenger for the presidency. The pundits were arguing that Democrats were largely united on issues, in contrast with Republicans.

Now a big debate is emerging, with a growing movement driving it. If she announces, Clinton will have to stake out her positions in that debate. And she might just leave the space that gives a Webb, an O’Malley, a Sanders or even a Warren room and reason to run.

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