The Popularity of the New Populism

Robert Borosage

Hillary Clinton indicates she favors a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizen’s United, the Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates to corporate money in politics. She joins President Obama in calling for an end to the hedge fund billionaire tax break, and expresses dismay at the gulf between CEO salaries and those of everyday workers. Republican candidates from Jeb Bush to Ted Cruz decry the growing inequality in America. Democrats in the House and Senate line up overwhelmingly against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and our failed trade policies.

These actions reflect what pollsters have discovered: Americans are looking for change, and in area after area, bold populist reform policies enjoy majority support. Politicians embracing populist reforms aren’t moving to the left or the right; they are moving to the center of American opinion.

This confounds expectations. Populist movements rise when people come to realize that the game is rigged against them – and that politics as usual offers no way out. Even as voters gave Republicans the majority in both houses in the elections last November, a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that by 56 percent to 40 percent, Americans agreed that the “economic and political systems of the country are stacked against people like me.”

Populist movements challenge that stacked deck, offering as FDR famously called it, a new deal. They expose the bipartisan elite consensus, the consensus that governs beneath the melodrama of partisan disputes. Populist movements question conventional wisdom and contradict received opinion. Thus people’s movements often start with minority support, not majority approval. Their purpose is to mold popular opinion, not reflect it.

So it is remarkable that the bold populist agenda already garners widespread support. This week, four major progressive organizations – National People’s Action, US Action, the Alliance for a Just Society and the Campaign for America’s Future – will host a gathering of organizers across the country to release a populist platform “for people and the planet” and make plans for driving these ideas into the political debate. Many of the platform planks already win majority approval.

Here is an overview of where Americans stand on the core ideas. (Much of this polling is available on our Populist Majority website.)

Curb the Power of Big Money in Politics

The first priority of any populist movement is to make government an instrument of the people, not the privileged. That requires curbing the power of big money, reforming elections, and cleaning out the corrupted stables in Washington.

Here, Americans broadly agree. They overwhelmingly see politicians as serving Wall Street, not everyday Americans. They think the rich and corporations have too much influence on elections. Nearly three-fourths support overturning Citizens United with a constitutional amendment. Two-thirds support public matching funds to candidates that swear off large individual donations.

Increasingly, as Democracy Corps’ Stan Greenberg argues, a clear commitment to cleaning up Washington is essential for any politician seeking support for progressive reform. Americans are skeptical of government spending and actions because they believe the rich and entrenched will waste the money and pocket the benefits. The populist movement gains credibility precisely because it begins with a powerful demand for curbing the influence of the few, and making government an instrument for the common good once more.

Rebuild America and Create Jobs for All

The Populism 2015 Platform calls for major national investment in rebuilding America’s public infrastructure – everything from water systems to roads and rail. Any major expansion is now blocked in the Congress. It also calls for the U.S. to capture the lead in the green industrial revolution, investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency, to generate jobs while addressing catastrophic climate change.

Americans are clearly in favor. A November NBC/Wall Street Journal poll reported that 75 percent favor “increasing spending on infrastructure projects for our roads and highways (50 percent strongly) against only 9 percent opposed. Americans want a long-term, serious rebuilding of the country, not a short-term stimulus that is likely to be wasted.

On climate change, most Americans now agree that it has already started to take place and that government should act to address the threat. Americans strongly support investing in new energy. For example, a December 2014 bipartisan poll for the National Resources Defense Council in five battleground states (Florida, Virginia, New Hampshire, Colorado, and Maine) showed overwhelming (59 percent or better) support for “more investment in energy efficiency and renewable sources like wind/solar.”

Enforce Fair Taxes on Corporations and the Wealthy

The platform calls for the rich and corporations to pay their fair share of taxes, answering the question of how to afford increased public investment. Republicans, of course, are for cutting taxes. President Obama supports “revenue-neutral” corporate tax reform, while calling for ending some of the most egregious tax breaks that favor multinationals and the rich.

As a February 2015 Pew Research poll showed, nearly four out of five Americans (79 percent) “are bothered by the feeling that the wealthy don’t pay their fair in taxes, with 61 percent bothered “a lot.” Eighty-two percent were bothered that corporations didn’t ante up their fair share.

Americans for Tax Fairness has reported that large majorities are for closing loopholes, cracking down on tax havens, and forcing the rich and corporations to pay their fair share. By 68 percent to 31 percent, voters believe “we should close tax loopholes for large corporations that ship jobs offshore, and instead use that money to invest in jobs in America by improving our roads and bridges and rebuilding manufacturing.”

Raise Wages and Reduce Inequality

The platform calls for direct government action to reduce inequality: raising the floor under every worker by guaranteeing a living wage, and paid sick and vacation days; rebuilding the middle by empowering workers to form unions and bargain collectively, and curbing excesses at the top by shutting down perverse CEO compensation schemes.

More than two-thirds of Americans support raising the minimum wage. Sixty-three percent support raising to $15 an hour by 2020. Over three-fourths support giving a preference in government contracts to businesses that pay a living wage and provide good benefits.

Nearly three out of four agree that companies should be required to offer paid sick leave to their employees. Three out of four agree that large companies should be required to offer paid vacation days to their employees. Two-thirds of Americans think CEO pay is too high. On unions, Americans are mixed. They think of unions favorably, but support right-to-work laws that are designed to undermine them. These attitudes may change as unions become more clearly seen as vital to insuring workers capture a fair share of the profits and productivity they help produce.

Guarantee High-Quality Public Education

The platform calls for providing every child with high-quality public education from pre-school through four years of college or advanced training. It also calls for providing relief to those burdened by student debt.

A November 2014 Hart Research poll for the AFL-CIO in Senate battleground states reported that three out of four favored increased funding for public schools, from preschool through college. A majority, reported a January 2015 ABC/Washington Post poll, supported President Obama’s call for two years of free community college. Four out of five (82 percent), a November 2014 NBC/WSJ poll reported, support providing access to lower-cost student loans and extending the time to pay them. Polling for the Progressive Congress Campaign Committee showed more than six in 10 Americans favoring federal assistance to provide four-year “debt free” college to all.

Expand Shared Security

The platform calls for expanding shared security programs, guaranteeing the right to a job, affordable health care, a secure retirement, affordable housing, food support. This includes expanding, not cutting, Social Security.

Americans overwhelmingly support providing every child with a healthy and fair start. A 2014 Huffington Post poll found that nearly half (47 percent) of Americans favored government “guaranteeing a job to every American adult” who couldn’t find work in the private sector. Sixty-two percent of voters in battleground Senate states support increasing Social Security benefits. Progressive Change Campaign Committee polling found majority opinion for a guaranteed minimum income.

A New Global Trade Strategy

The platform calls for forging a new global trade strategy that works for working people. Congress is now enmeshed in a furious argument over providing the president with “fast track” trade authority to grease passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.

A Pew Research study showed that while more than two-thirds of Americans believe that growing trade is a “good thing,” skepticism about the effects of trade is growing. The same study revealed that only 20 percent of Americans believe growing trade will lead to job creation, with one-half saying it will lead to job losses. Even fewer – 17 percent – think increased trade produces higher wages, while 45 percent understand that it reduces wages.

Not surprisingly, a 2014 Hart Research poll showed voters opposed fast track trade authority for TPP by two to one.

Curb Wall Street

The platform calls for curbing Wall Street’s financial casino, urging passage of a financial speculation tax, a crack down on payday lenders, and breaking up the big banks.

An August 2014 WSJ/NBC News poll showed Americans still overwhelmingly view Wall Street unfavorably. Greenberg Quinlan polling revealed 60 percent of likely voters favor stricter regulations on the way banks conduct their business. A Progressive Congressional Campaign Committee poll found 55 percent of Americans were for the “break up financial institutions that are deemed “too big to fail,” even if that means breaking up some of the biggest power players on Wall Street,”

These attitudes make them open to new ideas. For example, a 2013 Hart Research poll found that by 61 percent to 32 percent, voters favor a measure to “establish a small tax on all trading in stocks and bonds and other financial market trades. For example, for every ten thousand dollars in a trade the tax would be three dollars.”

Guarantee Women’s Economic Equality

The platform calls for guaranteeing women equal pay for equal work, providing access to high quality child care and paid leave, and insuring that women have access to affordable health care and a secure retirement.

A March 2015 Reuters/Ipsos poll reported that more than two-thirds of Americans agree that men are generally paid more than women, and a majority think government should be doing more to encourage equal pay.

Polling of likely 2016 voters by Lake Research for Make it Work revealed overwhelming support for guaranteeing equal pay, as well as providing paid sick days and family leave, affordable child care and elder care. Nearly three in four say the government has a responsibility to ensure employers treat employees fairly by providing them with such policies. About 70 percent said that workplace laws and policies are out of sync with the changing realities of modern families, and with the changing roles of men and women at work and at home. And 81 percent – 94 percent Democrats, 80 percent of Independents and 65 percent of Republicans – agree that workplace rules to ensure equal pay, paid time off to care for family members and affordable child care “is good for our nation.”

Eliminate Institutionalized Racism

The original populist movement at the dawn of the industrial age split apart over the race issue, particularly in the South. This populist platform addresses the question of racial disparities directly, calling for comprehensive immigration reform, expanded voting rights and an end to the mass incarceration of people of color.

Immigration reform has broad support among Americans. Americans overwhelmingly support the Voting Rights Act and want congressional action to restore it.

On criminal justice reform, a majority of Americans agree that racial minorities do not receive “equal treatment as whites” in the criminal justice system. But there are deep gulfs between white and black perceptions of the criminal justice system, with African-Americans overwhelmingly agreed that the system discriminates against minorities, while whites generally believe the system is fair. Here, people’s movements still have a long road to travel.

Address Real Security Needs

The platform calls for a real security agenda that makes military intervention a last resort and focuses more attention on global threats like climate change, poverty and inequality.

Given daily terrorist incidents abroad, more than eight in ten Americans (83 percent) say taking measures to stop future terrorist attacks should be a top foreign policy priority, as reported by 2014 Pew Research polling.

At same time, nearly as many (81 percent) prioritize pursing a foreign policy that protects American jobs. About six in 10 think a top priority should be reducing US dependence on imported energy sources, but only 37 percent put a priority on addressing climate change. Strengthening international institutions, spreading democracy or addressing poverty gain even less support.

Americans are generally skeptical of military intervention, but post 9/11 are generally supportive of action against terrorists. Thus Americans favor intervention against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Yet nearly four of five were very or somewhat worried that intervention would lead to a wider war.

Popular support does not create change, particularly when majority opinion differs from the consensus among elites. Americans have supported progressive reforms for years, with little effect. What the Populism2015 gathering and platform represent is the growing popular mobilization to demand change. When people mobilize, politicians scramble.

The struggle between a people’s politics and the politics of money is growing. Increasingly, Americans realize that they are not suffering from circumstances; they are getting fleeced. Broad, but passive, opinions are turning into pressing demands – and Washington and Wall Street are just beginning to feel the heat.

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