Populism Arising--but Will It Be the Killer Kind?

The old assumptions and paradigms about capitalism and free markets are dead. A new, virulent populism, still inchoate, is slowly and painfully rising to take their place. This populism will determine the future of the country. It is as likely to be right-wing as left-wing.

I watched these competing populisms flicker Thursday night at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., when I moderated a debate between independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader and Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin. The two candidates come from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Nader, in essence, is a democratic socialist in the mold of Eugene Debs or Norman Thomas. Baldwin, a founder and minister at the Crossroad Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla., is an evangelical, right-wing populist.

Baldwin, like Nader, rails against corporatism and our involvement in foreign wars, wants to repeal NAFTA and denounces the curtailment of civil liberties. But Baldwin goes on to support the abolishment of whole departments of the federal government, such as the Department of Education. He calls for U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations and NATO, the elimination of the Food and Drug Administration, the outlawing of abortion and removing all restrictions on the purchasing of firearms. One of his catchier campaign slogans is: "To help keep your family safe and your country free, go buy a gun." He wants to seal our borders, deny amnesty and social services to illegal immigrants and end birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants. He calls for dismantling the Federal Reserve and the Internal Revenue Service, overturning the 16th Amendment and the personal income tax, and returning the American monetary system to hard assets: gold and silver.

These candidates, while marginal figures in the current election, express the two forms of populism that will soon find a wide political currency. The anger toward our elites will morph into rage. These new populisms may not be articulated by Nader and Baldwin, but they will be articulated by people like Nader and Baldwin.

The ideological foundations of free-market economics and a consumer society have collapsed. This collapse is hard for us to fathom. We are still in shock and denial. We cling to old structures of meaning and outdated words to describe them. We have yet to realize that all our political science and economic textbooks have become junk. We have yet to formulate a vocabulary to describe our altered reality. We grasp, on a subliminal level, that laissez-faire capitalism is gone, but we have not viewed the corpse, scheduled the funeral and read the last rites.

"People get very clearly that Washington found hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out rich people in a way the government does not usually intervene," said Anthony Pollina, The Progressive Party candidate for governor in Vermont. "They understand that the government came up with all this money to support the wrong group of people. People get that in their gut. There is anger. It is not rage yet. There is still a little bit of disbelief. I may be running for governor, but all people want to talk about is how did we come up with all this money to give to rich people on Wall Street and why didn't they let them pay their mortgage off."

Millions of people will lose their homes. Jobs and savings will vanish. The government will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis. The greed of huge corporations, especially as they continue to cannibalize the country, will see them, and our elites, become the enemy. Exxon, to give one example, made $40.61 billion in profits last year while we struggled to fill the tanks of our automobiles and trucks. Oil and gas corporations, despite these profits, ruthlessly refuse to fill furnaces in winter when people cannot pay the bills. AIG, the insurance giant, after being saved with an infusion of $85 billion in taxpayer money, squandered $440,000 on an executive visit to a California spa. It spent $86,000 for its executives to hunt partridges in the English countryside and then blithely asked the U.S. government for an additional $38 billion.

Elites, when they confuse the artificial court life of Versailles with the real world, die. These capitalist entities, grossly out of touch, incompetent, blinded by greed and power and morally and intellectually bankrupt, are committing collective suicide.

"People are beginning to understand that when the economy is weak you have to put people to work," Pollina, who is now outpolling the Democratic candidate, said. "We have a crumbling infrastructure in the state and a need for affordable housing. I have put forward three or four different ways to raise revenue to put people to work, including closing a loophole in our capital gains tax. I think people are attracted to me because they are realizing that this is now the most important thing we can do. We have to put people to work. We cannot continue to abandon them."

The flagrant corruption of our political system--hostage to the hundreds of millions of dollars handed out by the corporations and elites to Democratic and Republican candidates--will become clearer as our initial shock wears off. The new American will be about the basics--jobs, food, health care and a place to live. We will discard the old vocabulary, the one still used by the Democratic and Republic parties, and learn to speak in the fiery language of populism. We will turn with a vengeance on the 1 percent that has amassed more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. The populist conflict will see a battle between a frightened and dispossessed majority and the corporations and elites who seek to ruthlessly cling to power and wealth.

"Over the years people became disengaged," Pollina said. "They stopped paying attention. This crisis has forced them to pay attention. It directly affects their economic future and ability to put food on the table. Outrage will lead to more involvement. This outrage could, however, fuel a right-wing populism around the country, although not in Vermont. Here I think people will move more to the left. In Vermont they have somewhere else to turn--I am here, Bernie Sanders is here, the Progressive Party is here--but on the national level this could see people turn to the right wing."

A victory by Barack Obama may embolden right-wing populists. They will be able to use Obama and "liberal Democrats" as a lightning rod for the failings, growing poverty and incompetence of the state. The elite, as happens in all such moments of confusion, revolt and social chaos, will probably be forced to make an uncomfortable alliance with right-wing populists if they want to survive. The center of the political spectrum will melt.

"A lot of people feel the two parties have reached a consensus that all they have to do is support rich people to protect their hides," Pollina said. "The two parties have come together to throw money at people who do not need it. People are beginning to understand they are no better off and probably their grandkids will pay for this. There is a great deal of resentment over the fact that Republicans and Democrats will risk everything to prop up rich people."

We have begun a socialist experiment. George W. Bush and John McCain, in stunning repudiations of all they claimed to believe, call for massive state intervention in the financial markets and the use of billions in government funds to buy major stakes in banks. The question is not whether we will build state socialism. This process has already begun. The only question left is whether this will be right-wing or left-wing socialism.

The left, with a few exceptions, like the Progressive Party in Vermont, has largely thrown in its lot with the Democratic Party. Right-wing populists, as is evidenced by the acrimonious split in the McCain campaign, remain clustered around the fiefdoms of large megachurches that stoke hatred and frightening totalitarian visions of a Christian state. The left has no correlating centers of activism, organization or mass support, especially with the decline of labor unions. If left-wing populists do not rapidly build local organizations, as was done in Vermont, to compete with the right-wing populism of the Christian right, the most dangerous mass movement in American history, they will be easily swept aside.

There is not much time left. A Democratic victory in November may signal not a reversal of our fading fortunes but the start of a precipitous slide toward the Christian dystopia peddled by people like Baldwin.

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