SIX POPULISMS

TPMCafe’s guest stint by Thomas Frank (One Market Under God, by the way, is a masterpiece) has stirred a spirited debate about the place of populism in a progressive future. Populism is a word which has rightly come up fairly frequently in more- and less-enlightened discussions of the left’s future, but too often it seems like folks are talking past each other. Here are six of the somewhat but not entirely related themes I think are in play in the way different people discuss populism:

Progressive Economics: In broad strokes, the economic policy proposals that get labeled as populist are the ones least popular with the Washington Post editorial board and the “Washington Consensus” crowd: fair trade or no trade; downward economic redistribution; unionization. Opposition to immigration often gets grouped in here as well as part of the same package, though for obvious reasons I’d rather apply the populist label to the push for equal labor rights for immigrants.

Direct Democracy: The other set of policy proposals which usually get the populist labels are the ones which bring political decisions under more direct control of the American public. This includes taking decisions away from judges and handing them over to legislatures and taking them away from legislatures and handing them over to public referenda.

Trust in crowds: Populism is also used to describe a posture – whether held by politicians or activists – of trust in the mass public and distrust in elites. Usually, trust in the public is justified by an appeal to the wisdom of common people in identifying their own problems and synthesizing their own solutions. And distrust in elites is justified on the grounds of their inability to understand those insights or, more often, their narrow interests.

Democratic Legitimacy: Populism also describes a particular kind of appeal made by elected or unelected political leaders. Candidates for office, especially, tend to get the populist label for seizing democratic legitimacy for themselves – that is, for framing themselves as the bearers and protectors of the people’s will. The corollary to the candidate as representative of the masses is the candidate as enemy of the elites, whose hostility is easily explained by their opposition to the popular policies and popular mandate.

Prejudice: Populism is also a frequently-invoked label to describe all manner of ugly prejudice, be it directed against Blacks, Jews, homosexuals, or immigrants. In this conception, populism is the cry of some self-defined majority against unwelcome interlopers. This meaning of populism – which gives elites a lot of credit – is never far when someone’s looking to discredit one of the others.

Economic Focus: Maybe the simplest sense in which the word populism is used is to refer to a focus on economic issues (rather than a particular stance on them), to the exclusion of others.

That makes two kinds of policy approaches, two rhetorical/ philosophical postures, a question of focus, and a very bad thing (generally thrown into the mix by pundits like Joe Klein to make everything associated with the word sound ugly). Each of them, though, has a way of showing up implicitly in discussions about what is or should be populist.

What does it mean, for example, to ask whether Bill Clinton was a populist President? He often gets described that way, in large part because he ran on the economy (“It’s the Economy, Stupid”), and because his challenge to Bush benefited significantly from a sense that Clinton represented the concerns of the American people with which the President had fallen out of touch (and supermarket ray-guns). Others associate Clinton with the decline of populism in the Democratic party, and of the party in the country, pointing to his conservative stance on issues like NAFTA and the technocratic underpinnings of the “Reinventing Government” concept. I’m not going to say they’re both right (I’d say Clinton campaigned as a populist, but he didn’t govern as much of one). I will say that on those terms, it’s no surprise that those conversations don’t get farther than they do.

Thoughts?

US News and World Report joins the scattered speculation about Presidential prospects for Russ Feingold:

He’s on a nationwide mission to test out his progressive message that’s liberal on some issues, like universal healthcare, and conservative on others, like the deficit. Fans think he can bridge the blue-state-red-state divide, making him not just a voice for a changing Democratic Party but a possible ’08 presidential candidate.

Feingold, re-elected in November to US Senate – from Wisconsin no less – by a wide margin, was also just named Deputy Democratic Whip. Feingold’s success should be not only inspirational but instructive for the party. Voters gave him six more years by a 12% margin while breaking only narrowly for John Kerry. It wasn’t that they thought Feingold was more moderate (even Karl Rove, when asked by a Wisconsin reporter weeks before whether the so-called “most liberal Senator” was really to the left of Feingold, declined to answer). Looks like it was Russ Feingold who was more compellingly able to speak to the issues facing Wisconsin voters and to their better angels and greater hopes. Looks like Wisconsin voters recognize what Feingold does, and what the pundits don’t: that being an independent is a very different task from being a moderate. That political courage isn’t a matter of sometimes reading from the other party’s talking points but of privileging allegiance to a set of values over capitulation to consensus, whether partisan or (as is too often the case) shared by powerbrokers in both parties. That meant standing for fair trade even as the Democratic party embraced NAFTA’s global race to the bottom. That meant successfully building a majority for real steps, however tentative (and in a few cases, counterproductive), towards limiting the suffocation of democracy by money. And that meant standing in the shadow of September 11 for that which is strongest in the American tradition by breaking with all 99 of his colleagues and voting against the PATRIOT Act. Russ Feingold didn’t run away from these votes when Tim Michels campaigned against them. He ran on them. And he won counties that John Kerry lost.

It’s not the first election in which Feingold defied political prognostication. He won in 1992 against well-financed better-recognized opposition with ads patterned more on Michael Moore movies than conventional TV spots. He showed up at his opponents’ mansions with a camera crew to ring their doorbells and ask for a debate (no response). He took viewers on a tour of his own home (“Here’s the closet: Look, no skeletons”), including the garage door on which he’d painted his three campaign commitments: No out-of-state funding. Town meetings in every county of Wisconsin every year. And no pay raises while in the Senate (a twelve-year legacy recently celebrated by a conservative stalwart). Go watch those ads. And the latest batch as well. They’re not just clever – they’re courageous.

So is Russ Feingold. He publically criticized Kerry and Edwards both for voting for the Iraq War and for voting against the $87 billion. He’s introduced or co-sponsored legislation to bar state and federal executions, use of permanent replacements during strikes, and drilling anywhere in the Great Lakes. He’s voted against NAFTA, the Defense of Marriage Act, and the No Child Left Behind Act. He’s cast a few bad votes. One was to confirm John Ashcroft as Attorney General; another was against scuttling impeachment proceedings against Clinton. He justified confirming Ashcroft, whose nomination he condemned, on the grounds that Presidents deserve the counsel of a cabinet of their own choosing. He justified his vote against halting impeachment on the grounds that the charges merited a full debate. Feingold voted against impeachment on both counts, though his comments were strongly – I would say unjustly – critical of Clinton’s conduct. They do demonstrate a hearteningly high set of ethics standards for elected officials, even if unfortunately misapplied in the Clinton case. And as the Madison Capital Times observed when Gore announced his running mate, Feingold’s criticism of Clinton’s use of political power in the Lewinsky investigation was far more credible than Lieberman’s self-serving reminders to America that sex outside of marriage is immoral.

Peter Beinart argued after the Ashcroft vote that Feingold was guilty of “the proceduralist delusion, that if you get the process right–figure out how much deference presidential nominations deserve or how much money candidates should spend–you can avoid taking sides politically.” But while Beinart is certainly right that “good government” reforms alone won’t overthrow entrenched noxious power or achieve social justice, only willful blindness could lead one to argue that Feingold has avoided taking sides on the divisive moral questions of the day. Beinart’s likely rightly to argue that Feingold’s 1998 campaign could have focused more on what he was doing in Congress and less on how he was campaigning (positively, and with in-state contributions). But in an era in which everyone expresses a desire to clean up American politics but most politicians bristle at regulations which could mean changing the way they themselves do business, Feingold deserves a great deal of credit for leading by example, holding himself to the standards of what would become McCain-Feingold three years before it became law. And Beinart is himself falling prey to delusion if he believes that the means by which politics is conducted has no impact on the relative power of the good guys and the bad guys to achieve their ends (all that said, McCain-Feingold of course still needs a great deal of work).

Feingold’s commitment to progressive means and progressive ends has struck a cord with voters we might expect and voters we might not. His capacities both to take courageous stands on principle and to cooperate constructively with unlikely allies have yielded a string of victories – some immediate, some partial or deferred. Russ Feingold serves as a telling reminder for the rest of the Democratic party that the road to victory in the next Presidential match doesn’t run away from the values of liberalism. And I’d say he has a better claim than most at serving as the party’s standard bearer in that fight. Looks like he’s beginning to think so as well:

Now, some may think that Alabama and Wisconsin are the polar opposites of American politics. But in both states I’ve found that — along with sharing a sincere appreciation of a good turkey dinner — too many hardworking people are losing their battles for decent paying jobs and adequate healthcare. I’m tired of seeing the power-hungry persuade the hardworking people of this country that the only way to preserve important values is to vote against their own families’ basic interests. I believe that the working people of both states have sacrificed for other people’s agendas for too long. And I believe that any political party or political movement or political candidate who would consistently say this would be heard throughout America.

I agree with most of what Alyssa has to say here:

There is simply no precedent for the outpacing of C.E.O. compensation and other corporate profits in comparison to what the people who actually make companies run earn as it happens in America today. It’s telling that in the wake of major corporate scandals, rather than condemn Tyco executives, for example, for their terrible, destructive greed, jurors in their corruption trials dismiss accounts of profit gone mad as a waste of time. Our views on fair compensation, respect for employees, and the value of organized labor are vastly off-kilter.

…Unions will always have limited power if their strength is confined to the workplace, where they can fight employers, but lack the ability to define some of the structural constraints, like the minimum wage, that affect their members. It is vital that unions be organized well enough so they can make their members’ voices heard in both the workplace and the voting booth, and make sure that they are united behind strong, progressive policies.

I do have a couple points of disagreement or, at least, of divergent emphasis. First, I think Alyssa inadvertently minimizes the significance of the two moments she highlights which we agree offer new hope for American labor, the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides and the HERE – UNITE merger:

The former represents a willingness to be flexible in the face of party re-alignment and a recognition of the progress of globalization. The second represents a committment to getting leaner and meaner, and an understanding that you need both money and killer organizing to beat a strong resurgence of anti-union sentiment.

While there’s certainly a good deal of truth in the argument that the merger represented a union with members but no money and a union with money but no members joining forces, I think there’s a much broader point here, one that I’ve mentioned on this site before: Labor has to be as well organized and as unified as management, and as labor organizes across boundaries between nations, we must organize across boundaries between unions, something most folks who were watching and have the freedom to say so agree didn’t take place effectively in California. Nathan Newman has argued recently that union competition marked labor’s most effective period by providing a spur to all sides to organize; unfortunately, union competition also marked one of labor’s most tragic moments, its divided and self-destructive response to the growing Red Scare, in which all too often those very union competitions eased the process of conservative unions siding with Uncle Sam against their more radical counterparts. Among the biggest losers there, not surprisingly, were the workers of color whom only the left-wing unions of the CIO were effectively organizing. Of course there are good reasons for the AFL-CIO to be composed of different unions divided in some cases by job type, in others by region, in others by organizing strategy – but too often those barriers are arbitrary and costly. As has played out on Andy Stern’s blog and in its comments, finding innovative ways to foster broader strategic alliances while maintaining and building industrial democracy and democratic leadership on the local level is key (David Moberg explores this further in this week’s The Nation in an article which isn’t yet on-line). So the UNITE HERE merger, bringing together one union which launders the second union’s uniforms and a second union which serves the first union food at lunch hour, bringing together two unions with a proven commitment to progressive organizing, is an urgent model – although it may not have been carried out in a way consonant with the best values of these unions.

Speaking of progressive organizing, I think that to articulate the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides as a response to a shifting national and international landscape both understates their significance and lets labor off to easily for a historically (up to the mid-90’s) anti-immigrant stance that at no time was in the big picture interests of union members. Daivided labor markets – be the axis of divison race, religion, gender, or immigration status – have always been lucrative for employers, who’ve proven all to eager to exploit a vulnerable group’s marginal position in society (and too often in the labor movement as well) to drive down their wages and benefits, and to use the threat of that group’s therefore cheaper labor costs to drive down everyone else wages and benefits and pit natural allies against each other in an ugly race to the bottom. Historical examples of course abound; here in Philadelphia, a union movement which had succesfully organized and won the ten-hour day screeched to a halt as first-generation Catholic immigrants and second-generation Protestants in different trades started killing each other in the Kensington riots. Organizing the unorganized workers, rather than engaging in a futile campaign to stop them from working is the only morally defensible and genuinely pragmatic approach. God bless John Wilhelm, Maria Elena Durazo, and the unrecognized others who brought the AFL-CIO around.

The other area where my perspective may differ from Alyssa’s somewhat is on the role of unions in politics. I’m a major proponent of the New Unity Partnership, which would enshrine organizing in the workplace and political organizing as unions’ major functions and major expenditures. But while Alyssa urges unions

picking politically viable candidates and proving that they can turn out large numbers of supporters for them…severe layoffs, a slowdown in organizing, and bad choices of candidates have made unions look less credible politically than they did in 2000…

let’s not forget what the Democratic party, after the Clinton years, which on the one hand brought the Family and Medical Leave Act and an increased minimum wage, and on the other wrought NAFTA and Welfare Reform, has to prove to American workers and American labor. Labor has been most effective in this country not by letting its support be taken for granted by Democrats but by organizing so powerfully that the Democrats (read: FDR) feared that if they didn’t find enough to offer labor it would sink them. I’m glad Kerry wants a Labor Secretary from the “House of Labor.” I’d like to hear more about this legislation on the campaign trail though.

That said, I’m stoked for SEIU to make history by devoting its resources this election not into soft-money TV ads but by getting thousands of its members leaves of absence to organize their neighbors to vote Bush out of office, and to hold our national leadership accountable through November and beyond. The party machines could learn a lot from them; today’s New York Times suggests they’ve begun to already.