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The Shifting, Double-edged Sword called 'Populism'

By       Message Robert S. Becker     Permalink
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Have you tracked the stunningly widespread shout-outs to "populism" -- buoyed by libertarians, Tea Partiers, free-marketeers, gun owners as well as progressive, socio-economic reformers? When a word goes viral, as flexible as rubber, what movement meaning is left? Beware especially of authoritarian populists who assail indistinct "elites," only to end up bludgeoning minorities with coded messages. And while fat cats get predictably bashed, how many such populists deliver systemic proposals that threaten the powers-that-be? Not many. For years calling someone a "populist" was a swipe, and the left cringes when "populist" right-wingers, especially militant Confederate-types, take the stage -- or when the GOP's latest "true American," Dave Brat, conquers the Cantor with populist pablum.

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Surprisingly, populist visions surface for Democrats dreaming up their next ideal presidential nominee (a stretch for 'Wall Street' Hillary). Palin's demagoguery commands a populist pulpit, though like everything else about her it's fake. Exceptions stand out, for Jim Hightower the "Texas populist" walks the walk by nailing the opposition as "bosses, bankers, big shots, bastards and bullshitters," smug top dogs treating ordinary people as "nothing but fire hydrants." Occupy failed to develop follow-through but never veered from its steady anti-elitist attacks against the super-rich menace. The most forceful "populist" scrutiny today springs from the Warren-Sanders brigade, naming names plus strong penalties against renegade banksters.

Over the years, raucous, open-ended populist clamors routinely set "ordinary people" against a spate of fearsome foes: crony capitalists and predatory bosses, the Obama White House, the Federal Reserve, anything that reeks of gun control, and Koch-style billionaires funding what right and left partisans deem the new fascism. Indeed, the prospect of political crossover prompts the latest pleasantry from Ralph Nader, entitled "Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. What's "unstoppable" is Nader's invention, confirming an "alliance" that will "dismantle" (not just modify) the corporate state because -- well, because some issues and some rhetoric overlap. Gadfly Nader testifies to wishful thinking -- and the dubious notion every enemy of your enemy is a natural ally. Not only does the rabid right scorn the squishy left, Tea Partiers hate government so much that evils of negotiation and compromise supplement the Seven Deadly Sins.

Nader's Bridge to Nowhere?

Consider the Rand Paul-Ayn Rand crusade against government, whether about collusion with big business, privacy violations or military belligerence, issues that resonate across the left. But the libertarian answer is not to fix big government but drive its shrunken, sequestered body off the cliff. Wall Street bailout is bad so kill the Federal Reserve. Defy all deficits, and remove the federal safety net. What progressive anywhere thinks the solution to bad government is shriveled government, thus returning power to backward states that badly mangle resources, abortion, voting rights, and health care? Where on big issues is there common ground: fairer taxation (not just less for the richest)? In-depth solutions to income inequality (not default to the "free market")? New Deal-style jobs stimulus (not trickle-down folly), plus funding basic research into alternative energy and global environmental solutions?

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Libertarians gagging already on minimalist oil and mining restraints won't suddenly handcuff derivative excesses, hedge fund billionaires or oil polluters who use tax subsidizes to externalize disaster costs. Anyone who shreds Obamacare as a "government takeover" (by the "tyrant" or "fascist" president) won't hug single-payer, liberal advocates. Dream on, for the bridge between right and left has no legs, feet or toes.

Shrewd researchers, like George Lakoff and Drew Westen, prove terms matter, certainly emotionally-laden sound bites. So high time to turn over the "populism" rock. First off, distinct historical roots separate early populism from later (and clearer) progressivism. 19th C. populism emerged from agrarian and small-town, less affluent, less educated roots, like the Grange and Farmer's Alliance. More bottom-up then, early populism targeted urban, monopolistic, price-fixing robber barons and foreclosure-happy bankers in love with the gold standard. William Jennings Bryan was his generation's most visible populist yet he bristled with painful contradictions. He fought imperialism and monopoly, supported women's suffrage, yet refused to attack murderous southern Jim Crow racism, instead fought for doomed prohibition with nativist, fundamentalist zeal. Less conflicted, Teddy Roosevelt, R. LaFollette and Huey Long "spoke populism" but so did the early (racist) George Wallace and white supremacist Klansmen, along with later entrants like contrarians Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan.

Populist Scatter-gun

In short, protean "populism" explodes all left and right divisions, warring against elitism, plutocrats, and child labor abuses but also rum, immigration, minorities and "foreigners" with funny names and accents. Their legacy today: crazed Tea Partiers demanding "their country back" from "outsiders." Too often a fallback for opportunists and demagogues, populism at its worst comes down to pitting your tribal "us" against scheming, conspiratorial predator "them" out to steal your team blind.

Progressivism, in contrast, reflected more urban, college-educated, middle and upper-class populations, though inclined to top-down activism (thus having to "educate masses"). The Progressive Era boasts serious, constitutional breakthroughs: the graduated income tax, popular election of senators, and votes for women. The voting rights campaign pushed majority rule, thus elevating the initiative, referendum, and recall options. Progressives, like educated populists, supported scientific and technological breakthroughs, even utopian dreams of a "more perfect union." Still today, progressive forces argue effective solutions to an array of modern woes (racism, violence, racism, poverty, class warfare) demand sustained governmental commitments (to level the playing field), better universal education, more efficient yet safer working conditions, and comprehensive environmental regulations and planning, more so than ever today.

History favors the progressive movement, with more focus than populism, ultimately not so much a political ideology as flashy "rhetorical style." That explains why rightwing Dave Brat and Senator Warren can both appear to indict predatory, "large corporations seeking insider deals, crony bailouts, and constant supply of low-wage workers" (Brat's language denigrating Cantor backers). That explains why Nader misleadingly characterizes Brat's win as "a clear populist challenge by Main Street against Wall Street and by ordinary people against the corporate government with subsidies and bailouts that the Left calls corporate welfare and the Right calls crony capitalism."

Left & Right, Longshot Alliance

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True, on back burner topics (prison reform, privacy, drug reform, juvenile justice, etc.) the national wings align and right/left divisions wither. But does any one truly think -- on national medical care, oil and mining regulation, climate change, consumer protection, jobs stimulus, VA budgets, and funding scientific/medical research -- that a dozen congressional Dave Brats will embrace the "populist left" and together win the day? Will the regressive House leadership even allow open voting on immigration reform or cutting militarism just because politically-green "radicals" bellow from the back of the bus?

This essay emerged when I discovered the word "populism" popping up across dramatically contradictory venues. That led to separating historic populism from modern progressivism, then the bigger gap that splits the pragmatic, frazzled left from the ideologically-fixated libertarian-Tea Party-fundamentalist crowd. For me, "progressive" holds up well while the scatter gun called "populism," with confusing, infinite applications, will never pool resources or write systemic reform agendas.

Perhaps left plus right alliances will form on specific issues, but overall focus must be economic top vs. bottom, publicizing why super-haves cannot have so much without impoverishing the have-nots and toppling the whole system. Zip codes matter more than zippy, coded "populist" jargon. There's at least one savvy billionaire who reads the handwriting on the wall, were his own class to forever deny reality: "The Pitchforks Are Coming... For Us Plutocrats."


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For a decade, Robert S. Becker's rebel-rousing essays on politics and culture analyze overall trends, messaging and frameworks, now featured author at OpEdNews, Nation of Change and RSN. He appears regularly at Dissident Voice, with credits (more...)

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