The New Populism Driving the National Debate

Robert Borosage

A populist energy is building in America, and beginning to drive the debate in the Democratic Party. It’s escalating both in the battle of ideas and in action on the ground. It’s starting to propel change at the state and local level, and challenge the limits of the debate at the national level.

Movements grow when workaday people make themselves subjects of history. We saw that with Occupy Wall Street that swept across the country. The Dreamers and extraordinary mobilizations of Latinos transformed the immigration debate. #BlackLivesMatter and the demonstrations after Ferguson put our criminal injustice system onto the agenda. The largest demonstration of this century came as activists marched in New York City protesting the lack of action on catastrophic climate change.

On April 15, low-wage workers will walk out of their jobs in cities across the country – and the world – in the “Fight for 15,” an effort supported by over 2,000 organizations, demanding a $15 an hour minimum wage and a union. Fast-food workers will be joined by restaurant workers and by college associates, skycaps and airport baggage workers, all struggling with poverty jobs.

Companies like McDonald’s and Walmart have reacted to the pressure and to the growing economy by lifting some of their wages. Seattle and San Francisco have already passed a measures moving to a $15 minimum. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, tagged as the mayor of the 1 percent, scrambled to push through staged hikes to a $13 minimum, but that was too little and too late to save him an unprecedented runoff against a populist challenger. Emanuel’s expected coronation was interrupted by an extraordinary coalition of worker and community groups – led by unions like Chicago Teachers Union, Service Employees International Union, and the Amalgamated Transit Workers, as well as Reclaim Chicago,, Democrats for America, Rainbow Push Coalition, Working Families Party and more. The final votes will be cast on Tuesday, but whatever the result, politicians across the country are already taking note.

Republicans have a crowded potential presidential field, but thus far we’ve seen little new or interesting in the realm of ideas. Pledges to repeal health care reform or support anti-gay religious freedom measures won’t take them far.

It is in the Democratic Party, where the presidential race is dominated by the presumed candidacy of presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton, that the ideas primary is already heating up.

Last week, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio convened a dozen progressive leaders at Gracie Mansion to discuss how to make certain that “income inequality is at the forefront of the national discussion.” He announced intentions to unveil an Inequality Contract with America, modeled explicitly on the Republican Contract for America that Newt Gingrich pushed as the agenda for Republicans when they won the House majority in 1994. De Blasio plans a major Washington forum in May, followed by a bipartisan presidential forum, with invitations to candidates of both parties. “We’ve got to change the politics of the country to change inequality,” the mayor said.

On April 18-20, the Campaign for America’s Future will join with three major grassroots organizations – National People’s Action, the Alliance for a Just Society and USAction – and over 1,000 activists from states across the country at a strategy summit entitled Populism 2015: Building a Movement for People and the Planet. We will release a bold populist agenda and forge strategies to challenge the limits of the national political debate, while driving reforms at the state and local level.

The “Run Warren Run” campaign, enlisting activists to urge Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run, now has a more potent ground organization in Iowa than any campaign. Although denying plans to run, Warren has joined with Rep. Elijah Cummings to launch the Middle Class Prosperity Project, planning forums on how to make this economy work for working people once more. They’ve convened sessions on inequality, retirement security and student debt, with more to come.

The AFL-CIO convened a Raising Wages Summit in Washington and announced plans to hold similar gatherings in the first four primary states, aimed at forcing candidates to be clear about what they would do to ensure that workers share in the rewards of growth.

The Progressive Congressional Campaign Committee has geared up a Ready for Boldness campaign, enlisting leaders and activists in early primary states, New Hampshire and Iowa, to call on Democratic candidates to endorse “big, bold economic populist ideas” – such as debt-free public college, expanding Social Security benefits, breaking up “too big to fail” Wall Street banks and more.

Now heating up is the Democratic revolt against President Obama’s call for putting the next corporate trade deal – the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership – on a fast track to passage. Already the vast majority of House Democrats are lined up to demand an end to trade deals that are rigged by multinational corporations, and that end up costing jobs and undermining wages here in America. The Congressional Progressive Caucus published a set of principles towards establishing a new national trade strategy.

At the national level, Republicans control the Congress, but are so divided that they find it difficult to pass much of anything, not even modest reforms supported by the Chamber of Commerce – like investing to rebuild our increasingly dangerous and decrepit infrastructure. But at the state and local level, economic reforms are starting to move. Hikes in the minimum wage are the most visible, but also guaranteed paid sick days, crackdowns on wage theft, giving preference in procurement to good employers that recognize the right of their workers to organize and bargain collectively, bold steps to generate jobs by providing incentive for clean energy, efforts to make college affordable and more.

The first swallow does not mark a spring. These efforts are merely the infant stirrings of what must grow into far more powerful popular revolts to make a difference. At the national level, Republicans continue to seek to savage government services, while lowering taxes on corporations and the rich. The White House has joined with Republican congressional leaders in a full-court press on to pass fast track trade authority. In the red states, Republican governors and legislatures attack public schools and teachers, cut services – particularly for the poor – and taxes, particularly for the rich. Florida’s Governor Rick Scott even sought to ban the use of the words “climate change” or “global warming” in official documents. As the ideas primary is heating up among Democratic voters, big money still speaks loudly in whispered backroom sessions.

But no longer is the right on the march. The tea party is both co-opted and increasingly unpopular. As Indiana just demonstrated, social issues increasingly serve to isolate the right, not empower it. The debate about our future is taking place in demonstrations on the ground, and inside and outside the Democratic Party – and is growing increasingly fierce.

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