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Making The "New Populism" A Reality: Lessons From The Conference

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Cross-posted from Campaign For America's Future

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"Democratic movements are initiated by people who have individually managed to attain a high level of personal political self-respect," historian Lawrence Goodwyn wrote nearly four decades ago. "They are not resigned; they are not intimidated."

"The game is rigged," Sen. Elizabeth Warren said at last week's New Populism Conference, as if summoned forth from history by Goodwyn's observation: "We can whine about it. We can whimper. Or we can fight back.

"Me? I'm fighting back."

Against the Odds

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Goodwyn's quote comes from a book called "The Populist Moment: a Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America," and it's exciting to think that we might be facing another such historical moment. But Goodwyn warned of the obstacles such a movement inevitably faces: "cultural roadblocks," the difficulty of enlisting supporters, educating them and encouraging them into action, and the powerful forces arrayed against movements of this kind.

Goodwyn also warned of "intense cultural conflict with many built-in advantages accruing to the partisans of the established order." Anybody who has ever watched Fox News, or seen Bill Clinton sing from billionaire Pete Peterson's hymnal at one of Peterson's "Fiscal Summits," can attest to the prophetic force of that 1978 observation.

Against such odds, what will it take to make the new populist movement a reality?

First, a Vision

"We need more than just bumper sticker phrases," Rev. William Barber II of the NAACP said at the conference. Rev. Barber, who spoke of the connection between "academia and activism," quoted a fellow theologian as saying that "prophetic moral vision seeks to penetrate despair so that new futures can be believed and embraced by us."

"The slaves didn't figure out how to get out of slavery by first figuring out how to get out," said Rev. Barber. "They got out by first being driven by a vision that said, 'Up above my head/I hear music in the air ... before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave, and go home with my Lord and be free.'

"They had a vision to get out," said Rev. Barber, "before they figured out the ways to accomplish that."

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To be real, the New Populism must also have a vision. In Rev. Barber's words, "Imagination must come before implementation."

"There must be people who keep alive the vocation of imagination," said Rev. Barber, "who keep conjuring up alternative visions."

Setting Goals

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Host of 'The Breakdown,' Writer, and Senior Fellow, Campaign for America's Future


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