The Populist Uprising Isn’t Over; It’s Only Just Begun

Robert Borosage

The summer ends with a growing lament among progressives. Tom Frank’s cutting voice sums it up:

“And so ends the great populist uprising of our time, fizzling out pathetically in the mud and the bigotry stirred up by a third-rate would-be caudillo named Donald J Trump. So closes an era of populist outrage that began back in 2008, when the Davos dream of a world run by benevolent bankers first started to crack. The unrest has taken many forms in these eight years – from idealistic to cynical, from Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party – but they all failed to change much of anything.  And now the last, ugliest, most fraudulent manifestation is failing so spectacularly that it may discredit populism itself for years to come.”

Like many on the left, Frank has few hopes for Hillary Clinton. She’ll be the ultimate Davos moderate, he predicts, collecting neo-conservatives and Republican elites, negotiating backroom deals to “get things done.” The elites, shaken by the Sanders insurgency and the Trump rise, are now back in the saddle.

But Frank is waving the white flag when the struggle has only just begun. One needn’t have illusions or hopes about a Hillary Clinton presidency to think that the old order can’t be sustained.  Both elites and dissenters tend, I believe, to underestimate the scope and the devastation of the establishment failure both at home and abroad.

America is a rich country, awash in entertainment. People have little time and few outlets for real political education. Labor and the left are weak. The Democratic Party is a fundraising and recruitment machine, not a source of political education. The truly desperate tend to be isolated, locked up and kept out of sight.

But what we’ve seen in this election — and in the elections of 2008 and 2012 – is that Americans are catching onto the game. They are working harder and losing ground. They suffered through the Great Recession, and have witnessed the wars without end and without victory. They’ve seen their kids graduate from college and come back home burdened by debt.  Poor people of color are in many cities more segregated and in worse condition than they were in the Jim Crow South.  They are casting about for a change.

Trump is too much the buffoon, too unstable, too risible and too bigoted to be the agent of that change. But unless the establishment cuts a much better deal with the bulk of Americans, we’ll keep on moving.

The likelihood is that the Clinton presidency will be tumultuous.

  1. No Honeymoon: On the left, there are fewer hopes about Clinton than about Barack Obama. The pressure will begin even before she takes office in what is likely to be a battle royal in the lame duck session of Congress as Obama tries to force through his TPP trade deal.
  2. New Energy: If the Sanders supporters stay engaged, there could be an organizational form – his OurRevolution and his institute – that can do what a political party should do: educate and mobilize around progressive issues; recruit and support truly progressive candidates. This insurgency may continue to grow.
  3. New Generation: It can’t be forgotten how overwhelmingly Sanders won young voters. He not only won 3 of 4 millennial voters in the Democratic primaries, he won a majority of young people of color voting. Some of this was his message. Much of it was the integrity of someone consistent in his views spurning the big money corruptions of our politics.These young people are going to keep moving. They won’t find answers in a Clinton administration. We’re gong to see more movements, more disruptions, and more mobilizations – around jobs, around student debt, about inequality, around criminal justice, immigration, globalization, and climate and more.
  4. New Coalitions: Sanders and Trump clearly have shaken the coalitions of their parties. Trump combined populism with bigotry and xenophobia to break up the Republican establishment’s ability to use the latter to support their neoliberal economics. Sanders attracted support of the young across lines of race, challenging the Democratic establishment’s ability to use liberal identity politics to fuse minorities and upper middle class professionals into a majority coalition. Clinton fended off the challenge, but the shakeup has only begun.
  5. New Ideas: The Davos era has failed. There is no way it can continue down the road without producing more and more opposition. This is now the second straight “recovery” in which most Americans will lose ground. Already the elite is embattled intellectually on key elements of the neo-liberal agenda: corporate globalization, privatization, austerity, “small government,” even global policing. Joe Stiglitz suggests that the Davos era is over, but that is premature. What is clear is that it has failed and the struggle to replace it has just begun. And that waving the white flag because Trump is besmirching populism mistakes today’s farce for history’s drama.

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