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Populism: Democrats Ignore at Our Peril

Burt Cohen

As we approach 2010, populism appears to be the exclusive province of the passionate right wingers. But it remains an opportunity for Democrats in the coming election.

Democratic Party insiders consider me somewhat of a boat rocker (untitled is unmuzzled). I've always been a populist, a Jeffersonian. This may upset a few, but now more than ever, Democrats need to renew our call for decentralization of power and democratization of the economy.

Which is what the tea partyists clamor for. Those Democrats who ignore the populist revolt do so at their own peril. When Democrats are strong on these pocketbook issues, we do well. But if we yield the populist ground to the Republican Party, the results of 2010 will not be in our favor.

The middle class feels abandoned by both parties, the American Dream is more out of reach than ever. When it comes to outrage at the bipartisan march toward centralization of power and wealth, it's in our nature for Democrats to lead the charge.

In the Wall Street bailout, who among us didn't share the feeling that: Hey, the big money is getting a bailout, what about me? What is this Too Big To Fail nonsense? Some Republicans have tried to co-opt the mood on Main Street, but where have Democrats been?

If we are portrayed as the party of a central government owned and controlled by big money, we lose and we deserve to.

For much of our history, Democrats have been recognized as the party of working people. But with the Clintonians and the DLC there was a shift. The race for money took over. Many leading Democrats became eager lapdogs to the big-bucks campaign funders. The finance and insurance industry took charge of government. We now need to reverse that order.

As an Obama enthusiast, it saddens me that President Obama¹s economic policy appears to be back in the hands of those responsible for the economic meltdown. It looks as if the banks are reining in politicians when it should be the other way around.

Administrations may have changed, but who's in charge has not. As taxpayers underwrite the grievous mistakes made on Wall Street, as a recent bonus gift to those money titans, any future bailouts will be unfettered by burdensome congressional oversight, institutionalizing taking from the many and giving to the few.

Franklin Roosevelt, a great Democrat, said, "Government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob." At a rally a week before the election of 1936 when FDR bellowed "I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it those forces met their master." It was met with wild cheering.

Roosevelt also pointed out that "No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it."

FDR won with nearly 61%. Of course, in 1937 those he sought to rein in got their vengeance. It appears that in 2010, that won¹t be necessary. Wall Street called the shots under Bush and Clinton, and now Obama¹s economic table is owned by the same Wall St. Rubinites.

Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) is one who gets it. He says, "the people at the top of the party don't comprehend the power of that [populist] message," and worries that the party may miss the best chance in a generation to connect with the middle class. "Congress must bring fairness back to economic life." May I say, amen!

Here in New Hampshire, Mark Connolly, Director of Securities Regulation also gets it: "The interests of Main Street investors need to be placed at the head of the line--this means greater disclosure, increased shareholder rights, and an end to financial products that benefit Wall Street but are not suitable for average investors."

The anger on the streets is because we've had quite enough of government of, by, and for the very richest. Populism can be taken over by dangerous demagogues like Father Coughlin, George Wallace, and lately Glenn Beck. It is crucial that Democrats take back populism and directly address the issue of economic fairness and put forth an agenda that serves the middle class as it tilts away from the too-big-to-fail corporate finance and insurance interests and the elite richest one percent.

We must take on the concentration of wealth and power, and give decision making and governance back to we, the people.

Burt Cohen served as NH State Senator from 1990 to 2004. He hosts a twice weekly talk show: Portside and a once weekly Fine Aged Rock music show. His columns appear regularly on Blue Hampshire and in the New Hampshire Business Review.

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