I consider Sam Smith a friend though we have never shared a drink together we have shared something equally as important, our abiding love that the printed word shall be truth, present history as fact and always stay on message.
"Sam Smith has been editing alternative journals longer than almost anyone in the country and has been covering Washington for almost as long as anyone in the capital. He started in 1957 as a 19 year old radio reporter covering everything from fires and murders to the White House and Capitol Hill." (From the Progressive Review website)
An alternative newspaper (Lancaster Independent Press: 1969-1992) that I spent many years with "exchanged" copies with what was then Sam's DC Gazette (1969) and later (1985) his Progressive Review. That is how I came to know Sam and also how I came to respect and admire him. That respect and admiration has not diminished over the years, no matter where I might find myself I always read Sam's stuff, he's been online since 1995. Though we are peers - age wise - and have been banging away on the keyboard just as long, Sam is one writer that I've always aspired to emulate. I hope that his latest piece which I'm posting gets read and discussed here on opednews. It gives much food for thought, especially for those among us who feel that "in your face, taking it to the streets" kind of activism has no place in today's political arena. I personally believe that type of action is the only damn thing that is going to bring political change.
The left gatekeepers would have us all believe that it is best to adopt the "wait and see" dictum, "change will come." "Moderation in all things." "Patience is the best virtue." To them all, I have one thing to say: patience my ass, I want something to happen now.
JOHN EDWARDS has done the Democrats an enormous favor. He has retrieved
the party's reason for existence from the attic where it has been stowed
lost and forgotten for some four decades.
What Edwards does with the discovery remains to be seen, but the mere
removal from storage of the populist notion that Democrats are meant to
serve the little guy has a significance that is hard to overrate.
To understand why, you have to look at some of the party's other lost
and forgotten history, a history that directly challenges the myths of
For example, there have only been two Democratic presidents over the
past three-quarters of a century who have gotten significantly more than
50% of the vote: Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, each of whom
received 61% in one election. While neither fit the definition of a
populist, many of their programs - from FDR's minimum wage and social
security to LBJ's war on poverty and education legislation - were part
of a populist agenda.
Since LBJ, the party has increasingly deserted its populist causes and
been trapped between defeat and a tantalizing break-even division with
Although current party and media mythology treats Bill Clinton and other
Vichy Democrats as symbols of Democratic triumph this is far from the
- Clinton did no better than Kerry, Gore, Carter, JFK, and Harry Truman.
All of them came within two percent of the midpoint despite markedly
different styles and programs. It is fair to say that in each case,
party loyalty proved more important than the candidate.
- Michael Dukakis, the unfairly assigned butt of party jokes, did three
points better than Clinton in the latter's first election and only three
points worse in the second. Even more striking, Dukakis beat or equaled
Clinton's best percentage in 12 states including Idaho, Iowa, Kansas,
Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and Oklahoma, a record dramatically at odds
with the spin of the Clintonistas and the Democratic Leadership Council.
- Democratic losses at the state and national level under Clinton were
worse than any seen by a party incumbent since Grover Cleveland. Clinton
proved a disaster for the Democrats. What happened in Congress this year
was a partial recovery from this disaster.
In short, the only thing that has really worked for the Democrats have
been campaigns heavily populist in nature.
American populism has a long past. It began when the first Indian shot
the first arrow at a colonist attempting to foreclose on his hunting
grounds. As early as 1676, the farmers in Virginia were upset enough
about high taxes, low prices and the payola given to those close to the
governor that they followed Nathaniel Bacon into rebellion.
One hundred and ten years later found farmers of Massachusetts
complaining that however men might have been created, they were not
staying equal. Under the leadership of Daniel Shays they took on the new
establishment in open rebellion to free themselves high taxes and legal
costs, rampant foreclosures, exorbitant salaries for public officials
and other abuses. The rebels were routed and fled.
The populist thread weaves through the administration of Andrew Jackson,
an early American populist who recognized the importance of challenging
the style as well as the substance of the establishment value system. It
was a time when it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a
needle than for a banker to get into the White House, a problem bankers
have seldom had since.
It was the end of the nineteenth century, though, that institutionalized
populism, and gave it a name. The issues are familiar: economic
concentration, unfair taxation, welfare and democracy. Critics are quick
to point out that they also included racism and nativism, which was true
in some cases, but it has been traditional for liberal historians to
emphasize these aspects while overlooking the rampant class and ethnic
prejudices of the more elite politicians they favored.
In the end, the most debilitating, discriminatory and dangerous form of
extremism in this country is found in the middle -- with its cell
meetings held in the committee rooms of the US Congress, its slogan "Not
Now" and its goal of maintaining the temerity of the people towards
their leaders. A true populist revival could change this but the
merchants of moderation will do what they can to control and blunt it.
As a party, the populists were not particularly successful, but it
wasn't long before the Democrats bought many of their proposals
including the graduated income tax, election of the Senate by direct
vote, civil service reform, pensions, and the eight hour workday. It's
not a bad list of accomplishments for a party that got just 8.5% of the
popular vote in the only presidential election in which it ran a
candidate on its own.
The growth of an urban left and the influence of transatlantic Marxism
overwhelmed rural-oriented populism, which also suffered due to racism
and regionalism. European socialism got a much better break under
Roosevelt than did the native populist tradition although there were
notable exceptions such as the rural electrification program. In the
end, however, neither ideological socialism nor pragmatic populism could
hold their own against the emerging dominant style of contemporary
liberalism, which espoused human rights and civil liberties even as
economic welfare was carefully constrained by a prohibition against the
redistribution of wealth or power.
The Democrats came to emphasize the worst aspect of socialism,
concentration of power in the state, while failing to expend a
proportionate amount of energy providing the supposed benefit of the
shift: economic and political justice. The growth of the economy, aided
by a couple of wars, obscured this development until the sixties, when
the forgotten precincts began to be heard from: first blacks, then one
mistreated group after another - including young non-college educated
whites - until today we find ourselves a country of angry, alienated
minorities, bumblinq around in the dark looking for a coalition to wield
against those in power.
Here lies the great hope in the rediscovery of populism. More than any
other political philosophy it offers potential for those who serve this
country to seize a bit of it back from those who control it. It
emphasizes the issues that should be emphasized: economic justice,
decentralized democracy and an end to the concentration of power.
Populism's hidden army is the non-voter. A study by Jack Doppelt and
Ellen Shearer, associate professors at Northwestern University's School
of Journalism, found that "Nonvoters as well as now-and-then voters see
politicians as almost a separate class, who say what they think voters
want to hear in language that's not straightforward and whose sole
mission is winning. . .
A review of Doppelt and Shearer's work notes that "In the 1996
elections, 73% of nonvoters were 18 to 44 years old. 39% were under age
30. 48% make less than $30,000 per year. 30% identified themselves as
And the study also found that 52% agreed with the statement: "The
federal government often does a better job than people give it credit
for." 83% of nonvoters thought the government should have a major policy
role in the realms of healthcare, housing, and education.
While a follow-up study found that nonvoters divided pretty much the
same way as voters on the presidency, the fact that they didn't do
anything about it was more telling. Besides, we're talking about a huge
number of people. If those of voting age simply turned out in the same
proportion as they had in 1960, there would be about 24 million more
voters, nearly 25% more cast ballots. That's a lot of people looking for
some difference between the candidates and some new directions.
But there are also big problems. We have, for example, reached a stage
where many minorities have produced enough winners that the greater
number of losers not only have to battle their oppressors but the
indifference of, and misleading impressions caused by, their own role
models. All pressure groups - farmers, labor unions, women, ethnic
groups - have grabbed a piece of the cake. But the citizens at the
bottom of each of these causes - the poor farmer, the unemployed
laborer, the tip-dependent waitress, the slum dweller - has hardly been
allowed a bite. We have created the superstructure of a welfare state
without providing its supposed benefits to the people who need it most.
Not even the organizations supposedly dedicated to correcting this
imbalance have been up to the task. The Black Congressional Caucus
remains silent as the toll mounts of black young men sent to prison or
to their death thanks a war far more deadly to them than Iraq, namely
the war on drugs. The major women's groups are far more interested in
Nancy Pelosi than in women working at Wal-Mart. In fact, the most
effective women's and minority groups in the country are unions like
SEIU and Unite Here, which actually help some of those most in need.
Unlike New Deal and Great Society liberals, contemporary liberalism has
cut its close ties to populism and instead is content to driver its SUV
to the church of Our Mother of Perpetual Good Intentions. The goal is to
believe the right thing, unlike populism, whose goal is to do the right
thing. Faith vs. works.
Interestingly, populism - despite its bad rap - has far more potential
for creating the diverse, happy society of which the liberals dream. The
reason for this is that hate and tension are directly related to
people's personal social and economic status. Both the old Democratic
segregationist and the new GOP fundamentalist understood and exploited
this. They made the weak angry at each other, they taught the poor of
one ethnicity and class to blame those of another for their troubles.
Karl Rove is just the George Wallace of another time.
But you won't break this cycle with feel-good rhetoric and rules. You
break it by creating a fairer and more decent society for everyone. You
don't do it with political correctness; you do it with economic and
Yet when Howard Dean made his comment about wanting to get the votes of
people who drove pickups with confederate flag stickers, he was
immediately excoriated by Kerry and Gephardt. By any traditional
Democratic standards, this constituency should be a natural. After all,
what more dramatically illustrates the failure of two decades of
corporatist economics than how far these white males have been left
behind? Yet because some of them still cling to the myths the southern
white establishment taught their daddies and their granddaddies,
Gephardt and Kerry didn't think they qualified as Democratic voters.
The decline of liberalism has been accelerated by a growing number of
American subcultures deemed unworthy by its advocates: gun owners,
church goers, pickup drivers with confederate flag stickers. Yet the gun
owner could be an important ally for civil liberties, the churchgoer a
voice for political integrity, the pickup driver a supporter of national
healthcare. Further, while liberals are happy to stigmatize certain
stereotypes, they are enthralled with others, such as the self-serving
suggestion that they represent a new class of "cultural creatives"
saving the American city. And from whom, implicitly, are they saving the
American city? From the blacks, latinos and poor forced out to make way
for their creativity.
The black writer, Jean Toomer once described America as "so voluble in
acclamation of the democratic ideal, so reticent in applying what it
professes." Writing in 1919, Toomer said, "It is generally established
that the causes of race prejudice may primarily be found in the economic
structure that compels one worker to compete against another and that
furthermore renders it advantageous for the exploiting classes to
inculcate, foster, and aggravate that competition."
So what might a populist agenda look like? Let's look at two examples -
neither a paragon of virtue - yet far better, and stunningly so, than
any of today's politicians in starting programs that helped large
numbers of people. Their legacy was not to be found in their own amply
noted inadequacies but in the adequacies they made possible for others.
In a time of shallow political celebrities incapable of even modest
achievement, these men remind us what democracy was meant to be about.
The first was Governor Huey Long of Louisiana. Here's how Wikipedia
|||| In his four-year term as governor, Long increased the mileage of
paved highways in Louisiana from 331 to 2,301, plus an additional 4,508
2,816 miles of gravel roads. By 1936, the infrastructure program begun
by Long had [doubled] the state's road system. He built 111 bridges, and
started construction on the first bridge over the lower Mississippi. He
built the new Louisiana State Capitol, at the time the tallest building
in the South. All of these construction projects provided thousands of
much-needed jobs during the Great Depression. . .
Long's free textbooks, school-building program, and free busing improved
and expanded the public education system, and his night schools taught
100,000 adults to read. He greatly expanded funding for LSU, lowered
tuition, established scholarships for poor students, and founded the LSU
School of Medicine in New Orleans. He also doubled funding for the
public Charity Hospital System, built a new Charity Hospital building
for New Orleans, and reformed and increased funding for the state's
mental institutions. His administration funded the piping of natural gas
to New Orleans and other cities and built the seven-mile Lake
Pontchartrain seawall and New Orleans airport. Long slashed personal
property taxes and reduced utility rates. His repeal of the poll tax in
1935 increased voter registration by 76 percent in one year. . .
As an alternative to what he called the conservatism of the New Deal,
Long proposed legislation capping personal fortunes, income and
inheritances. . . In 1934, he unveiled an economic plan he called Share
Our Wealth. Long argued there was enough wealth in the country for every
individual to enjoy a comfortable standard of living, but that it was
unfairly concentrated in the hands of a few millionaire bankers,
businessmen and industrialists.
Long proposed a new tax code which would limit personal fortunes to $50
million, annual income to $1 million (or 300 times the income of the
average family), and inheritances to $5 million. The resulting funds
would be used to guarantee every family a basic household grant of
$5,000 and a minimum annual income of $2,000-3,000 (or one-third the
average family income). Long supplemented his plan with proposals for
free primary and college education, old-age pensions, veterans'
benefits, federal assistance to farmers, public works projects, and
limiting the work week to thirty hours. . .
Long, in February 1934, formed a national political organization, the
Share Our Wealth Society. A network of local clubs led by national
organizer Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, the Share Our Wealth Society was
intended to operate outside of and in opposition to the Democratic Party
and the Roosevelt administration. By 1935, the society had over 7.5
million members in 27,000 clubs across the country, and Long's Senate
office was receiving an average of 60,000 letters a week. Pressure from
Long and his organization is considered by some historians as
responsible for Roosevelt's "turn to the left" in 1935, when he enacted
the Second New Deal, including the Works Progress Administration and
Social Security; in private, Roosevelt candidly admitted to trying to
"steal Long's thunder." |||
The other example is Lyndon Johnson. Johnson's gross mishandling of
Vietnam has obscured memory of the fact that he fermented the greatest
number of good domestic bills in the least time of any president in our
history. Again, some examples from Wikipedia:
|||| Four civil rights acts were passed, including three laws in the
first two years of Johnson's presidency. The Civil Rights Act of 1964
forbade job discrimination and the segregation of public accommodations.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 assured minority registration and voting.
It suspended use of literacy or other voter-qualification tests that had
sometimes served to keep African-Americans off voting lists and provided
for federal court lawsuits to stop discriminatory poll taxes. It also
reinforced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by authorizing the appointment
of federal voting examiners in areas that did not meet
voter-participation requirements. The Immigration and Nationality
Services Act of 1965 abolished the national-origin quotas in immigration
law. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned housing discrimination and
extended constitutional protections to Native Americans on reservations.
The War on Poverty . . . spawned dozens of programs, among them the Job
Corps, whose purpose was to help disadvantaged youths develop marketable
skills; the Neighborhood Youth Corps, the first summer jobs established
to give poor urban youths work experience and to encourage them to stay
in school; Volunteers in Service to America, a domestic version of the
Peace Corps, which placed concerned citizens with community-based
agencies to work towards empowerment of the poor; the Model Cities
Program for urban redevelopment; Upward Bound, which assisted poor high
school students entering college; legal services for the poor; the Food
Stamps program; the Community Action Program, which initiated local
Community Action Agencies charged with helping the poor become
self-sufficient; and Project Head Start, which offered preschool
education for poor children.
The most important educational component of the Great Society was the
Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. . . initially allotting
more than $1 billion to help schools purchase materials and start
special education programs to schools with a high concentration of
low-income children. The Act established Head Start, which had
originally been started by the Office of Economic Opportunity as an
eight-week summer program, as a permanent program.
The Higher Education Act of 1965 increased federal money given to
universities, created scholarships and low-interest loans for students,
and established a National Teachers Corps to provide teachers to poverty
stricken areas of the United States. It began a transition from
federally funded institutional assistance to individual student aid.
The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 offered federal aid to local school
districts in assisting them to address the needs of children with
limited English-speaking ability until it expired in 2002
The Social Security Act of 1965 authorized Medicare and provided federal
funding for many of the medical costs of older Americans. . . In 1966
welfare recipients of all ages received medical care through the
Medicaid program. . .
In September 1965, Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts
and Humanities Act into law, creating both the National Endowment for
the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities as separate,
independent agencies. . .
The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 provided $375 million for
large-scale urban public or private rail projects in the form of
matching funds to cities and states . . . The National Traffic and
Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 and the Highway Safety Act of 1966 were
enacted, largely as a result of Ralph Nader's book Unsafe at Any Speed.
Cigarette Labeling Act of 1965 required packages to carry warning
labels. Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 set standards through creation
of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Fair Packaging
and Labeling Act requires products identify manufacturer, address,
clearly mark quantity and servings. . . Child Safety Act of 1966
prohibited any chemical so dangerous that no warning can make its safe.
Flammable Fabrics Act of 1967 set standards for children's sleepwear,
but not baby blankets. Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 required inspection of
meat which must meet federal standards. Truth-in-Lending Act of 1968
required lenders and credit providers to disclose the full cost of
finance charges in both dollars and annual percentage rates, on
installment loan and sales. Wholesome Poultry Products Act of 1968
required inspection of poultry which must meet federal standards. Land
Sales Disclosure Act of 1968 provided safeguards against fraudulent
practices in the sale of land. Radiation Safety Act of 1968 provided
standards and recalls for defective electronic products. |||||
It is virtually impossible to conceive of any elected official today
being as productive as Johnson and Long. Yet Johnson never went to
business school; he was just a teacher. And Long took the bar exam
after one year at Tulane Law school and then went out and sued Standard
Oil. These were not people who are meant to succeed by today's distorted
and ineffectual standards, yet they did. In fact, if you want to find
anything comparable one of the few names that springs to mind is Harry
Hopkins who put millions to work within months for FDR. Hopkins was a
social worker by trade. With such leaders, hearts and smarts were the
credentials they really needed.
What would a new populist program look like? It might include things
- Universal healthcare with no trough-slopping by insurance companies
- A housing program in which the federal government would be an equity
partner with lower income house purchasers. It would be a
self-sustaining program as each partner would get their equity back when
the house was sold.
- An end to usury in credit card lending.
- Pension protection
- A revival of high quality vocational training
- Election reform including instant runoff voting and public campaign
- Expansion of cooperatives and credit unions
It is possible that we have so fouled our own nest that nothing like LBJ
or Huey Long will ever be possible again. And there is no guarantee
that John Edwards, having discovered the populist treasure in the
Democratic attic, will use it well. But there are so few real reasons
to cheer about our politics these days, news that one candidate is
seriously interested in programs that do the most good for the most
people - an almost extinct goal in the Democratic Party - deserves a
big cheer. And if he abuses this new found treasure, grab it from him
and put it to better use .