The Populist Agenda: The Fight for a Just Society

Richard Eskow

The obstacles faced by the progressive movement, especially in a post-Citizens United world, aren’t news to anybody who’s been paying attention. But recent developments may also stir an unfamiliar sensation in the liberally minded observer: optimism.

On Wednesday we began reviewing the state of the progressive agenda, starting with jobs and growth and using the “Populism 2015” platform as a guide, and found some genuine successes.

But our cities are torn by police violence, rampant poverty, and institutionalized racism. Women still lack equality of opportunity. Economic mobility is disappearing. These are deeply embedded problems of structural injustice, and it will take a concerted effort to end them.

How much progress is the populist movement making toward building a more just society?

Institutionalized Racism, Mass Incarceration

One of the Populism 2015 Platform’s 12 goals is to “Eliminate Institutionalized Racism to Open Opportunity to All,” ending “systemic racial disparities” through “comprehensive immigration reform, expanded voting rights” and an end to “mass incarceration and the systematic criminalization of people of color.”

On these issues, the debate has moved much further than might have been expected a few short years ago. Events in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore – and the protests they have inspired – have highlighted the myriad issues surrounding state violence against minority communities, including police violence and the prison/industrial complex.

Hillary Clinton has called for an end to what she called “the era of mass incarceration.” While Secretary Clinton offered few policy specifics, one good start would be a repeal (or major modification) of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act signed by President Clinton in 1994, a bill which the former president now says “cast too wide a net.”

That would be a start. But we also need to end the perverse incentives currently driving the criminal justice system in many parts of the country, whether it’s using traffic stops and other police activity as sources of municipal revenue or allowing for-profit prisons to drive occupancy rates. On these and other incarceration-related issues, the minority communities themselves have been leading the national debate and will almost certainly continue to do so.

On the broader and deeper issue of structural violence – the economic injustices that stifle minority opportunities, disable minority bodies, and claim minority lives on a daily basis – the lesson of Baltimore is clear: much more needs to be done.

Economic Equality for Women

Another key plank in the populist platform seeks to guarantee economic equality for women. That means equal pay, equal opportunity, child care, paid sick leave, a secure retirement, and appropriate medical coverage. Republicans have, if anything, become even more reactionary on women’s issues. Where it was once possible for a Republican president like Gerald Ford to support the Equal Rights Amendment, today’s GOP presidential candidates are taking increasingly strident anti-woman positions.

That creates a political opportunity for Democrats to embrace women’s economic equality, as it has already done to a certain extent. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was an excellent first step, but the party will need to press for additional action to ensure pay equity. Related bills, like Rep. Nita Lowey’s proposal to credit time spent as a caregiver when calculating Social Security benefits, also deserve stronger support.

So do benefits like paid sick leave, which affects both men and women but is especially important for primary caregivers. There have been a string of local-level victories in this area. As the National Partnership for Women and Families notes, “Paid sick days laws are or will soon be in place in 21 jurisdictions across the country – three states, the District of Columbia and 17 cities.”

Security for All

American women are also disproportionately affected by the shredding of the social safety net, which underscores the importance of another populist agenda item: “expand shared security for the twenty-first century.”

“Security” programs include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment, food support and housing assistance. Progress on these issues is mixed. The Social Security debate has shifted dramatically in the past few years. In 2010, leaders in both parties were discussing additional cuts to the program’s benefits. Today a number of more progressive Democrats are heeding activists’ calls to expand the program’s benefits instead.

Anti-poverty programs are not faring as well. More than 45 million impoverished Americans still live in poverty in the aftermath of growing inequality in the 2008 Wall Street financial crisis. But poverty has not become the kind of mainstream political issue it was in the 1960s, although Sen. Bernie Sanders is attempting to re-inject it into the presidential campaign.

Public Education

A just society can’t be built without a strong and effective system of publicly funded free education at all levels. At the elementary and secondary levels, the public school system is threatened by a coordinated propaganda assault against teachers and their unions, from a movement that seeks to privatize education. This well-funded and well-coordinated effort has many supporters in the mainstream media, and has won many Democrats (as well as most Republicans) over to its cause.

The progressive movement has, however, made some headway in pushing back against this effort. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s well-publicized move to deny special privileges to charter schools helped shift the debate. Studies have challenged the idea that private schools are more effective, and a Pennsylvania study uncovered widespread fraud in charter schools.

In another encouraging development, the movement for tuition-free college education has made surprising inroads. Spurred on by progressive activists, a number of progressive Democratic politicians have embraced the idea, giving it a political momentum that would have seemed unthinkable even a year ago.

Toward a Just Society

What’s the takeaway? Many progressives were filled with hope after the election of Barack Obama in 2008, only to see those hopes dashed by the rise of a “centrist” political consensus – one in which well-funded leaders of both parties agreed on many financial issues and shut liberals ideas out of the debate.

Today the landscape is changing for these “just society” issues. Independent activists are generating new proposals and demanding action. State and municipal leaders are responding, while populist politicians like Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown are bringing their ideas into the national debate.

The forces of the right are powerful. Corporate politics still dominates the national scene. But as long as the left continues to generate constructive proposals, and as long as there are movements and leaders willing to fight for them, there’s reason to believe that progress toward a more just society will continue.

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