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The U.S. Capitol is seen at sunset on September 17, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Populism, Freedom, and the Current Threats to Democracy

Progressive Populists need to understand the current struggle as a long-term battle over whose interests the Democratic party and the broader U.S. political system serve.

James Stone

Much ink has been spilt on the subject of populism, so it would be a fool's errand for me to presume to settle the debate over the meaning of the term. I will simply confine myself to pointing out two well-established facts. First, the original 19th century U.S. populists sought to forge a multi-racial movement of the producing classes to challenge the abuses of power by big corporations and wealthy individuals. They believed that business interests such as railroads and banks as well as wealthy individuals constituted a plutocratic threat to democracy in gilded age America. 

The hybrid system of private campaign finance and lobbying in the United States is the epitome of organized corruption on a massive scale and we cannot be surprised that it produces outcomes which further privilege the wealthy and monied interests.

This history leads to the second point. It has never made much sense to speak of "right-wing populism" as an ideological corollary to left-wing populism. Especially today when what many writers have referred to as Trumpian right-wing populism has gone off the rails into something overtly authoritarian and anti-democratic (as have other so-called "right-wing populist movements"), the simplistic and false equivalence of "right-wing populism" should be permanently laid to rest. Perhaps the time has come to simply refer to these movements as "sham populist" or even fascist as U.S. Representative Jamie Raskin does. 

It has been suggested by writers such as John Judis and others that the current spate of populist and sham populist movements and candidacies we are seeing around the world are a result of the 2008 Great Recession much as the populist movement of the late 19th century (and the reaction to it) was the result of a depression that hit the agricultural sector especially hard. Yet, as was also true of the nineteenth century depression, it was not so much the simple occurrence of the Great Recession, but the mismanagement of the response to it by politicians and governments in ways that overtly served the interests of banks and monied interests while disadvantaging ordinary citizens, especially those in "upside down" mortgages, that gave rise to the authentic populisms and right-wing "sham populisms" of today. 

As the late Hunter S. Thompson once wrote: 

The stomping of the rich is not a noise to be ignored in 

troubled times. It usually means they are feeling anxious 

or confused about something, and when the rich feel anxious

or confused they act like wild animals.

Setting aside the egregious comparison to animals, the stomping of the rich can be observed not only in the contours of the 2008/2009 bank bailout, but in the failure to respond to climate change. PBS Frontline recently broadcast "The Power of Big Oil," an illuminating three-part series that exposes the fossil fuel industry's decades long strategy of seeding doubt about climate science, funding campaigns of disinformation orchestrated by think tanks and front groups like Americans for Prosperity and employing an overarching strategy of delaying and defeating policies aimed at addressing the climate crisis. Recently, as is well known, this has culminated in the defeat of the Build Back Better Act by fossil fuel and corporate-funded Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema along with the entire Republican caucus in the Senate. When Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were in office, according to Frontline, Oklahoma Democrat David Boren was "flipped" by fossil fuel donors to defeat the administration's proposed BTU energy tax.

In a parallel development we are also seeing the culmination of the decades long project of Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society, and a network of conservative nonprofit organizations who, according to True North Research, spent nearly $600 million between 2014 and 2019 to reshape the federal courts by getting extreme right-wing judges confirmed. This appears to be about to result in the overturning of Roe v Wade, which many are speculating may in turn lead to the overturning of Griswold v Connecticut, Obergefell v Hodges, Loving v Virginia and other decisions based on a long-standing presumed right to privacy. For historical context, we do well to remember that the Supreme Court's 2013 Holder v Shelby County decision unleashed a torrent of state "voter suppression" bills that make it more difficult for voters of color and low income voters to exercise the right to vote, undermining equal protection for voting rights. The Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision opened the door to vastly increased private spending by monied interests on political campaigns. Taken together these decisions can be understood without undue hyperbole as assaults on core individual freedoms and democratic self-government. 

As Robert Reich has argued in a recent article the common denominator tying these Supreme Court decisions and legislative setbacks together is the manipulation of phony notions of freedom to fortify quasi-theocratic as well as plutocratic power by most of the Republican party. Reich observes that authentic notions of freedom include reproductive freedom and freedom to love the person of one's choice regardless of race or gender as well as freedom to organize labor unions to collectively bargain for better wages and benefits and the freedom to receive needed health care regardless of income. Much as the 19th century Populists formed cooperatives and sought to address racial and gender inequality through the Populist movement (albeit inconsistently, though increasingly as the movement evolved) individual autonomy paradoxically is seen to be facilitated by collective action. 

Another common denominator tying these developments together is the role of organized money in the nation's politics. Of course, as the late journalist William Greider once said, American democracy has always involved a contest between organized money and organized people. In an economy where wealth and income inequality are growing exponentially, however, the wealthy are acquiring more and more leverage in that contest. The hybrid system of private campaign finance and lobbying in the United States is the epitome of organized corruption on a massive scale and we cannot be surprised that it produces outcomes which further privilege the wealthy and monied interests. Among the interest groups that spend the most on lobbying one does not find labor unions, public interest groups, or environmental groups.

Authentic or progressive populism is a rational reaction to this set of circumstances. The 2020 victories of Rafael Warnock and John Ossoff on the strength of populist economic messaging and multi-racial organizing, as Eli Day has reported, illustrates the potential of this strategy. So does public opinion polling by Stanley Greenberg as well as by Jacobin Magazine, YouGov, and the Center for Working Class Politics. The manipulation of public opinion by plutocratic interests to undermine challenges to the power of the wealthy, however, are another reaction. 

The recent defeat of progressive champion Nina Turner in Ohio as a result of $2 million in campaign spending on a blizzard of attack ads that were not about Israel by Democratic Majority for Israel is a preview of the coming counterattacks against progressive populist candidates. The fact that Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, James Clyburn, Chuck Schumer, and the Democratic establishment endorse corporate Democrats like Shontel Brown over Nina Turner or anti-choice and anti-Build Back Better Act (until the eleventh hour) Henry Cuellar over progressive populist Jessica Cisneros demonstrates the seriousness with which fossil fuel companies and other corporate interests take the threat posed by progressive populist insurgent candidates. It is also suggestive of the potential to wrest control of the party from these malign forces. 

The recent mobilization spurred by the leak of the draft opinion overturning Roe v Wade is one measure of this potential. So is the recent progressive populist prairie fire of labor union organizing spreading across the country. Victories by young progressives such as Cloe Maxmin in a rural Maine state Senate district, despite the decision by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to shut down outreach to rural America in the face of a widening rural/urban economic divide, is suggestive of another potential strategy for countering this corporate-orchestrated offensive.

Progressive Populists need to understand the current struggle as a long-term battle over whose interests the Democratic party and the broader U.S. political system serve. Winning that battle will require forming alliances with people who may not agree on every issue, but do agree, as the 19th century populists did, on core issues of; 1) protecting individual liberty; 2) preserving and strengthening democracy; and 3) reducing economic inequality to expand economic opportunity. 

With public hearings on the findings of the House January 6th Select Committee slated to take place over the summer alongside the Poor People's & Low-Wage Workers' Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls organized by the Reverend William Barber and the Poor Peoples' Campaign and the Democracy Summer project being organized by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as well as Indivisible it is too soon to conclude that the failure of efforts to address climate change and the subversion of American democracy are inevitable. Organized people may yet prevail over organized money and the forces of cultural reaction. If President Joe Biden can forgive a substantial amount of student debt during the summer and implement parts of his climate agenda through executive action (or Congress passes parts of it as unlikely as that now appears) the prospects for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in the 2022 midterm elections would be substantially enhanced.


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stone

James Stone

James Stone is the author of Populism, Eco-Populism, and the Future of Environmentalism recently published by Routledge Press. He teaches Political Theory and Environmental Politics at Mt San Antonio College in Walnut, California.

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