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Building the New Populism

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It's a treasured American maxim that every problem is an opportunity in disguise.  Seven months before the mid-term election Democrats face a serious problem: most Americans feel the country is headed in the wrong direction and many blame the President.  Meanwhile, Republican Billionaires are spending millions of dollars on attack ads with the intent of sweeping Dems out of Congress.  Nonetheless, 2014 is an opportunity for progressives to remake the Democratic Party with a clear populist ethic.

The latest Gallup Poll indicated that 73 percent of respondents are, "dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States."  That same poll found that only 45 percent approved of the way President Obama is doing his job.  (Although Obama's numbers are bound to get better, given the number of enrollees for Affordable Health Care and the corresponding surge in support.)

Fortunately, underneath this political turmoil is a hopeful reality: most Americans don't want less government; instead, they want government to work for all the people not just the rich and powerful.  In a February speech, political columnist Jim Hightower identified the core problem: "[In] today's America" too few people control too much of the money and power, and they're using that control to grab more money and power from the rest of us."  Average Americans realize our democracy is slipping away and want politicians who will fight for the 99 percent.

2014 is an important battle in an ongoing struggle for the soul of America; a class war that's flared up several times in the Republic's 238-year history: plutocrats versus democrats.  On one side we have rich capitalists, the 1 percent, who believe what is good for them is good for the country; who believe whoever has the most wealth should have the most power.  On the other side are egalitarian democrats -- populists -- who believe what benefits the 99 percent strengthens the country; who believe power should be shared by all the people.

Although Americans are concerned about lots of issues -- the minimum wage, decent jobs, healthcare, education, and protection of the environment, to name only a few -- what they crave is a reassertion of fundamental American values: fairness, justice, and equal opportunity for all.  (By the way, these are the same values that motivated America's founders.)

Fairness begins with the assertion the economy must work for all the people. This means that the proceeds from economic growth should go to everyone, not just the one percent.

Fairness requires that women and men get equal pay for the same work.

Justice requires that Americans be treated be treated equally regardless of class, race, ethnicity, age, or sexual persuasion.  Justice requires that the 99 percent get a say in their government by being able to vote.   Justice requires common-sense limits on the role of money in elections -- politicians should not be bought and sold by the rich.

Justice requires a level playing field.  Justice demands a society where all citizens have access to food, water, shelter, and healthcare; a nation where everyone has the right to a decent education and the requisite support services (such as childcare).

And, justice requires that all Americans have the right to live in a healthy community free from environmental pollution, where they can trust that the air the breathe, the water they drink, and the food they eat are from harmful contaminants.

Equal opportunity for all  means ensuring that everyone who wants to work can find a job -- a job rebuilding American's infrastructure, if need be.  And this should be a decent job that pays a living wage and has benefits such as healthcare.  Opportunity means keeping alive the cherished myth of the triumphant individual.  As UC professor Robert Reich tells it, " The little guy who works hard, takes risks, believes in himself, and eventually gains wealth, fame, and honor."

The 2014 midterm election offers voters a stark choice.  On the one side are plutocrats and their Republican lackeys who want to maintain the status quo.  Politicians who are satisfied with an economy that benefits the one percent at the expense of everyone else.  Republicans who, for the 5+ years of the Obama Administration, have dogmatically blocked every Democratic initiative to create jobs.  Politicians who resist all efforts to raise the minimum wage, create gender wage equity, or extend unemployment benefits.  Republicans who feign disbelief at global climate change while stolidly supporting subsidies and policies that benefit fossil-fuel companies.  Politicians who argue a corporation is a "person" and strive to limit voting rights for struggling Americans at the same time they work to shred campaign-finance reform.

On the other side of the 2014 election are populists.  They must keep the American dream alive and prevent capitalist barbarians from storming the gates of American democracy.  Populists have to rally Democrats and Independents to keep an already troubled Washington from descending into absolute gridlock.  The way for populists to succeed is by emphasizing classic American values of fairness, justice, and equal opportunity for all.

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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