As many as three out of four Republicans oppose the Social Security budget cuts long promoted by the Republican leadership and centrist/corporatist Democrats. More than 80 percent of Americans believe that we need new rules for Wall Street and that the government has not done enough to hold bankers accountable. More than nine out of 10 believe we need financial oversight to keep the system fair. Most Americans believe the government's top priority should be job creation.
On issue after issue, the public -- often including most Republicans -- supports economic positions that could accurately be described as "populist." (See PopulistMajority.org for more details.) These figures validate Rev. Barber's experience and suggest that a truly nonpartisan populist movement is a realistic possibility. As Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) put it in his conference talk, "We are in a populist moment: the question is, What are we going to do about it?"
There are signs, however preliminary, of a potential "fusion" coalition in today's party politics. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio spoke at the conference about partnering with conservative Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana on a bill to rein in "too big to fail" banks. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the democratic-socialist independent from Vermont, cosponsored a bill to audit the Federal Reserve with libertarian Republican Rep. Ron Paul.
Making Populism Real
But, as several conference speakers affirmed, elected officials will not generate a populist movement. There is too much money in our political system to make that realistic, despite the popularity of populist ideas. It's much more comfortable for most politicians to preserve a status quo in which the GOP represents the economic far right, the "centrist" Democrats offer an economic platform that's too often indistinguishable from Republican free-market conservatism of earlier eras, and truly populist leaders aren't even on the ballot.
Profound social change -- whether in the agrarian economy of the 1900s, the growth of labor rights, civil rights, women's rights, or in other transformative historical moments -- has always begun with a popular movement. "Politicians see the light when they feel the heat," as Rep. Ellison said.
Is the New Populism real? Its footprints can be seen in the polling data, in the experiences of Rev. Barber and other conference speakers, and in the lessons of history. It exists as potentiality in the hearts and minds of the American people. It exists in the moral outrage that millions of people feel toward the injustice in our economic data, our cultural prejudices, and the unjust laws which remain on our books. It exists in our history and in our values.
But there is much work to do to move the New Populism from the world of nascent possibility to the world of transformative reality. It will be hard work -- the work of expressing opinions that are sometimes unpopular, the work of showing up at demonstrations beneath the glare of hostile strangers (or hostile law enforcement), the work of calling strangers and friends, of starting petitions or email lists, the work of educating ourselves in the work of educating others.
There will be the work of committing deeply to struggle that at times will seem unwinnable, the work of remembering Dr. King's words: "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." It will feel like a leap of faith at times, as if stepping off a cliff into the chasm of an unknown future.
But it must be done, and it can be done. Who will step forward and volunteer to do this work? If you're reading these words, hopefully you're ready to answer that question for yourself.
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