The Emerging Populist Agenda

Bernie Sanders participates in the Populism 2015 Conference last month in Washington, DC. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Emerging Populist Agenda

The most surprising development in our political debate isn't the gaggle of Republican presidential contenders or the ceaseless attacks on Hillary Clinton. What is stunning is the emergence of a populist reform agenda that is driving the debate inside and outside the Democratic Party.

The most surprising development in our political debate isn't the gaggle of Republican presidential contenders or the ceaseless attacks on Hillary Clinton. What is stunning is the emergence of a populist reform agenda that is driving the debate inside and outside the Democratic Party.

A range of groups and leaders are putting forward a reform agenda of increasing coherence. Today, the Roosevelt Institute will present a report by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, while New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is to release a "Progressive Agenda to Combat Income Inequality." These follow the Populism 2015 Platform, released in April by an alliance of grass-roots groups and the Campaign for America's Future. Also in April, the Center for Community Change (CCC) joined with several grass-roots allies to launch Putting Families First: Good Jobs for All.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), now contending for the Democratic presidential nomination, released his Economic Agenda for America last December. And while Hillary Clinton has chosen a slow rollout of her agenda, the Center for American Progress published the report of the Commission on Inclusive Prosperity headed by former treasury secretary Larry Summers, widely seen as a marker of where Hillary might move.

Not surprisingly, these offerings differ in analysis, emphasis and specific reforms. But more striking is their scope of consensus.

All agree that our extreme inequality is not the inevitable result of globalization or technology. It is the result of policy and power. The rules have been rigged. No one reform offers an answer; broad reforms are needed.

All link growth and inequality. As Stiglitz argues, extreme inequality cripples growth, and full employment is vital to reducing inequality.

The central elements of the emerging populist agenda include:

Public Investment to Create Jobs: All share a central strategy -- major, long-term public investment in rebuilding America; modernizing our decrepit roads, sewers and transport; creating good jobs in the process. Sanders, the Populism Platform and the CCC agenda also emphasize meeting the threat posed by climate change, investing in new energy and energy efficiency and capturing a lead in the green industrial revolution. The CCC agenda also pays needed attention to giving investment priority to the "poorest communities."

Progressive Tax Reform: All call for raising taxes on the rich and the corporations not out of envy but to provide the resources for needed public investment.

Predistribution: Each agenda seeks to ensure that the rewards of growth are widely shared, by empowering workers to gain their fair share. That includes lifting the floor -- raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing paid sick and vacation days and family leave, funding child care, cracking down on wage theft, enforcing pay equity for women, revising overtime laws and more.

Most of the plans also emphasize empowering workers to organize and bargain collectively, arguing that the assault on unions has tilted the scales against workers. Both Sanders and the CAP committee also call for subsidizing worker-owned companies and cooperatives and for various forms of profit-sharing.

The Populism Platform, CCC agenda and CAP committee all call for redressing discrimination, including an end to mass incarceration and reform of our biased criminal justice system, comprehensive immigration reform, and pay equity and support for women. ("The Progressive Agenda" may soon include additional planks on debt-free college, expanding Social Security and criminal justice reform.)

Finally, all would curb the excesses at the top, cracking down on perverse CEO compensation schemes that give executives incentives to cash out their own companies.

Trade and Wall Street: Other than the more focused CCC agenda, all challenge the entrenched structures that fuel inequality, expressing opposition to current trade policies, and calling for curbing Wall Street excesses. Most would break up the big banks (with Summers an exception to that).

The Basics in Education: Most challenge the limits of our punitive education debate, focusing instead on basic investments in education: universal pre-K, investments in public education and various roads to debt-free public college.

Expand Shared Security: Most support expanding Social Security benefits. Sanders and Stiglitz emphasize Medicare for all. The CAP report calls for a new automatic program to provide jobs for the young in times of high unemployment.

Some differences are worth noting. Only the Populism 2015 document puts foreign policy on the economic agenda, though it is hard to imagine rebuilding America if we continue to squander lives and treasure in misbegotten military adventures abroad.

Similarly, only Sanders, Stiglitz and Populism 2015 include the need to curb big money in our politics and crack down on corruption. Clearly these rules have been rigged by the few to favor the few. This system stays in place because it works for them. No reforms are possible without curbing our corrupted politics.

These bold reforms are now gaining traction among Democrats. Clearly, Sanders will be a full-throated champion. Former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley (D) and former senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) have adopted more populist positions as they consider entering the race. Even Hillary Clinton has already shown a willingness to go beyond the limits of her husband's policies, while calling for bold immigration and criminal justice reforms. The money primary -- in Clinton's case, the process of raising more than $1 billion for her campaign -- puts a limit on any candidate's populist temptations. But, as Hillary is discovering in the debate over the president's trade policies, every Democrat will have to deal with an activist base that is generating an increasingly fierce reform current. And that current is likely to help mold public opinion as we head into 2016.

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