New York City’s billionaire mayor, the recently declared “Independent” Michael Bloomberg, was among the guests in Norman, Oklahoma on Sunday evening at a intimate dinner that included notables both Democratic (former Senators David Boren, Sam Nunn, Bob Graham and Charles S. Robb) and Republican (former Governor and Bush Administration defector Christie Todd Whitman and Senators Chuck Hagel and John Danforth).
It had been advertised as the kickoff to a conference to strategize ways to end “partisan polarization” and originally included something of a threat – that deep-pockets Bloomberg might decide to run for president as an Independent if the two major parties didn’t find a way to “end Washington gridlock” and “get our political system back the way we’d like to see it.” The press showed up en masse because of the possibility of a Bloomberg run though all present, including the mayor, did their best to discount that possibility – at least for the moment. Indeed, as the New York Times reported, the current success of centrist progressive and post-partisan sounding Barak Obama may have pre-empted the aspirations of the billionaire mayor and left him little turf on which to build a political platform.
Indeed, Bloomberg insisted that the meeting was “not designed to advance any particular agenda, other than the agenda of openness and giving the public the information they need to make intelligent choices.” He went on to claim that the major party candidates on both sides were “unwilling to face the big issues and take the risks and give it straight to the public.” The elites at this gathering, it was implied, have transcended partisanship and therefore are in a better position to guide the ship of state through the dangerous waters rising in our collective future.
There were genuine moments of idealism expressed at the C-SPAN televised press conference following a public forum entitled, “Bipartisanship and the 2008 Election.” Participants urged the presidential candidates not to merely deal in lofty words about a future that ended the blue state/red state divide but to spell out real plans about how to get there from here. The group also asked contenders to commit to creating bipartisan cabinets and to choosing the best person for the job, regardless of party affiliation. We have to retreat from “the extremes of left and right” our nation has been caught up in of late, said this graying group of mostly former high-end public servants.
Bloomberg and others argued partisanship has produced little but flawed “compromise bills” – on agriculture and energy, for example – and that partisanship and a desire for power prevented our nation’s leaders from grappling with crucial issues in imaginative, holistic or courageous ways. These are worthy, if rather obvious points. But buried in their rhetoric was a subtext that made me just a bit suspicious of the business billionaire and his high-powered friends’ selfless intentions to save us bickering partisans from ourselves.
After seven disastrous Bush/Cheney years, gale force winds of change are blowing through the nation and those winds – increasingly on the Democratic side and even sporadically on the Republican side – have more than a whiff of populism to them.
Is it populism, I wondered, not partisan polarization that at least some of these self-styled post-partisans want to save us from?
There were indications in 2006 that the Democrats were about to experience a surge of 21st century progressive populism with the upstart victories of Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Jon Tester (D-Montana) and Jim Webb (D-Virginia).
The combined popularity of presidential candidates John Edwards and Barak Obama (who has taken many a line from the people-centered progressive Edwards playbook of late) is a further indication that this trend is now ascendant.
But populism is erupting on the other side of our contentious aisle too. As rabid and racist as is the Lou Dobbs brand of anti-immigration fever gripping the Republican Party, the issue can surely be read as identity populism. Many working class Republicans, however wrongly, blame immigrants for their economic insecurity and want an activist government to take their side and keep the invaders out. Mike Huckabee has also been finding a sympathetic audience for his populist attacks on elite businessman Mitt Romney. It’s not just Huckabee’s superior Christian standing among evangelicals that caused their mass conversion in Iowa – it’s his Gomer Pyle Everyman appeal as well. Even the comeback kid of 2008, Senator John McCain, has a populist streak – at least when it comes to getting corporate money out of politics.
The American people have had it, or so it is beginning to seem, with being led by elites and their pro-big business sympathizers.
Americans now have the audacity to hope that the next president might actually feel their pain and do something about it and that seemed to scare at least some portion of the centrists gathered in Oklahoma. For with populism, most especially in its progressive Democratic form, comes government regulation on business, increased taxes on business and elites and possibly a minimizing of American adventurism abroad (with its incumbent loss of international business opportunities, especially in fossil fuel extraction, infrastructure rebuilding and weapons sales). Even some Republicans insofar as they support restrictions on our cheap class of undocumented workers or on the influence of big business on our political process pose a risk to unfettered business as usual.
Is anti-big business populism, and especially its likely progressive incarnation in the next election cycle, one version of the extremism these post-partisans wish to save America from?
Never mind that progressive populism hasn’t has a foothold in national government since the Johnson administration and hardly even a voice of late.
Never mind that the last time we tried it (FDR through LBJ), we enjoyed marked increases in prosperity and equality across the board. Never mind that almost all the bold and visionary ideas this nation has ever pursued in public policy have been based in a politics of progressive populism.
In order to appear fair-minded, perhaps these well-meaning political leaders felt they had to balance a rejection of the right-wing authoritarian extremism we have been subjected to of late with a rejection of a left-leaning progressive populism that hasn’t made a dent in our national politics at least since Reagan came to town.