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Progressive Populism and a 21st Century Challenge

Grassroots activists are re-defining populism for a new era.

The new populists are devoted, in contrast, to diversity, tolerance, and inclusiveness. (Photo: Dr Case/Flickr)

The new populists are devoted, in contrast, to diversity, tolerance, and inclusiveness. (Photo: Dr Case/Flickr)

Eugene Lim was on his way to hitting rock bottom. After graduating from Chicago’s Shimer College in 2011, he’d spent two years trying to find a permanent job. And he was increasingly blaming himself for his plight.

“I thought I was poor through some fault of my own,” he said in a speech before the Populism2015 conference that I helped organize this April in Washington.

After a serious mauling from a stray dog landed him in an emergency room, Lim was left with an $11,000 hospital bill he couldn’t pay. That’s when he began to redirect his anger.

Fortunately, Lim was eligible for Illinois’ Medicaid program. But then he learned that Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner was pushing for deep cuts in the state’s Medicaid program—while also pushing tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.

That spurred Lim to join the Chicago community action group One Northside, one of the key voices pushing back against Rauner’s right-wing economic policies.

Now, Lim says, “I blame systemic economic injustice for those two hard years” of unemployment. That injustice has made him a foot soldier in a new movement that’s challenging both major American political parties.

At the Populism2015 gathering, some 800 grassroots activists and community organizers like Lim sought to define this new 21stcentury movement. They discussed how it could boost campaigns around the country.

As progressives reclaiming the mantle of "populism," our alliance is tapping a deep American tradition rooted in the nation’s founding. We see the government as an instrument for the public good.

The meeting included many political activists who are rooting for a Democratic presidential challenger to Hillary Clinton—largely due to her ties with Wall Street and concerns about her commitment to forcefully addressing extreme wealth concentration—as well as those who aren’t.

Both camps are working together to build an independent political force powerful enough to diminish the influence of big money in politics at all levels of government.

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United People’s Action, Alliance for a Just Society, USAction, and Campaign for America’s Future, which together have more than 2 million members, organized the conference.

As progressives reclaiming the mantle of “populism,” our alliance is tapping a deep American tradition rooted in the nation’s founding. We see the government as an instrument for the public good.

“Populism reached back to the Founders to challenge the concentration of power and wealth and prevailing ideology of social Darwinism,” recalled Harvey Kaye, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America.

The turn-of-the-20th-century populist movement, he explained, “called for government action to control the big banks and nationalize the railroad companies, support the setting up of public agricultural cooperatives, enact a graduated income tax, and guarantee the rights of workers to organize unions.”

But the earlier populists also too often “turned to anti-immigrant, anti-semitic, and racist rhetoric” to rally supporters. The new populists are devoted, in contrast, to diversity, tolerance, and inclusiveness.

"This new populism has to be equally committed to class, race, and gender," explains George Goehl, president of National People’s Action. "Everybody in, nobody out."

Conference participants ratified a 12-point platform “for people and the planet.” Organizers will use it to size up candidates running for everything from the White House to your local school board.

We’re building a movement that will reshape the political process, said Robert Borosage, a Campaign for America’s Future co-director. It will “shake the boardrooms of corporations and the bordellos of Wall Street.”

Isaiah J. Poole

Isaiah J. Poole

Isaiah J. Poole is the editorial director of The Next System Project, a project of the Democracy Collaborative.

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