Reviving progressive populism

Sam Smith – Reviving progressive populism As I approach the end of my sixth decade as an alternative journalist I feel sad and embarrassed that there is so little good news to report. After all the rebellions and countercultures that rewrote parts of the American story, we should be proud and happy, not outraged and stunned by the most dishonest, destructive, corrupt, and arrogant rightwing in our history.

As one small reminder of how things have changed, I came across a November 1964 edition of The Idler, forerunner of the DC Gazette and Progressive Review, which devoted seven pages to the positive progressive actions of the US Congress in the past year. Try to come up with even seven sentences that outline good things the current Congress did this year.

The change, however, is not new. A dozen years ago I wrote:

You can call the alternative what you want, but I like the term progressive populism, which is to say a politics that is both progressive and also appeals to the American mainstream.

Liberalism is dead. To be sure, liberals will continue to exist, but if we hold any hope of ending this country’s three decade slide to the right, they can not serve as the main alternative to disaster.

Central to this politics are the economic conditions of ordinary lives, the issue liberals have so often abandoned..

A progressive populist politics would be based on respect for all Americans, not just those who meet the cultural, class or ideological standards of an elite. Unconvinced voters would be regarded as a market and not a menace. It would be the job of the progressive populist politics to change their minds. In other words, all sides need to rediscover the idea of tolerance towards those with whom we disagree.

Another key element of a progressive populist politics would be respect for the small. Because the liberal elite has been trained to work in large institutions it has come to think size is the best way to get things done.

There was nothing in the historic liberal canon that require such contempt for distributing government to its most effective level. In fact, the best of old time liberal politics had as one of its key questions: how do we get this down to the street? One answer, of course, was to not make all the decisions at the federal level, but to let your party’s mayors and governors strut their stuff.

There is further a huge difference between the protection of a universal right, properly a federal role, and the distribution of ordinary services, which is pragmatically done at various levels.

By the end of Clinton’s second term, the Democrats had lost 48 seats in the House, 8 seats in the Senate, 11 governorships, 1254 state legislative seats and 9 legislatures .439 elected Democrats had joined the Republican Party while only three Republican officeholders had gone the other way.
Economic improvement, treating voters decently, and respect for the small in government. Just three good principles to help get a new politics going.

We also need to dump vetted ideology for pragmatic alliances based on issues. The media and our leaders want us to treat politics like a religion, but in real life one agrees with some people sometimes and not at other times. We find this strange, but historically it isn’t. Take for example the Socialist Party. From the beginning the Socialist Party was an ecumenical organization for American radicals. Its membership included Marxists of various kinds, Christian socialists, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish socialists, foreign-language speaking sections, single-taxers and virtually every variety of American radical. On the divisive issue of “reform vs. revolution,” the Socialist Party from the beginning adopted a compromise formula, producing platforms calling for revolutionary change but also making “immediate demands” of a reformist nature. The Socialist Party historically stressed cooperatives as much as labor unions, and included the concepts of revolution by education and of “building the new society within the shell of the old.”

Among the things that are wrong with society is that liberals have accepted the limited goals of a national front government, they suffer from the torpor of excessive intellectualism: and they seem congenitally unwilling to come out swinging for programs our country obviously needs.

What we need is more gutbucket liberalism: more down-to-earth struggles in the tradition of the best of the early progressive movements. As I wrote in 2002:
” For the [Democratic] party to recover, it must divorce itself from the con men who have done it so much damage. It must find its way back to the gutbucket, pragmatic populism that gave this country Social Security, a minimum wage, veterans’ programs, the FHA, civil rights, and the war on poverty. It must jettison its self-defeating snobbism towards Americans who go to church or own a gun. It needs to be as useful to the voter in the cubicle as it once was to the voter on the assembly line. It must find a soul, a passion, and a sense of itself. Most of all, it must get rid of those false prophets and phony friends who have not only done it so much damage but have left the country fully in the hands of the cruel, the selfish, the violent, the dumb, and the anti-democratic.”

A year later, I put it this way in an interview with Counterpunch:

“I am the third of six kids, so it comes naturally to me to be around people who disagree with me. You learn to build your coalitions one issue at time and they may not all look the same. I got started in activist politics in part by being involved in a local anti-freeway movement. We kept Washington DC from looking like LA. The day I knew we were going to win was when I went to a rally and the two main speakers were Grosvenor Chapman from the all white Georgetown Citizens association and Reginald Booker, head of an all black activist group called Niggers Incorporated. Part of the secret of politics is to put people together whom the establishment wants to have fighting with each other. It’s what the white establishment did in the south with rural whites and rural blacks: convinced them they were enemies. One of the reasons Huey Long was considered so dangerous was because he started to break up that myth.”

One way to bring progressive populism alive is to turn some of the emphasis on identity politics towards causes and issues that we can share regardless of our gender or skin color. For example, one of the groups most in need of help these days are women who have been dramatically mistreated by the Supreme Court in its abortion decision. According to a poll this year even 54% of Catholics support women on this issue and those offering 60% or more support include blacks, Protestants, Latinos, and white men.

One reason some groups keep their feelings quiet is because they don’t want to risk their own fundraising. But one way of dealing with this problem is for progressive populists to come together from time to time with national conferences and choose the issues that have cross identity support. You don’t have to identify the individuals involved but a nationwide progressive populist organization could itself become a major source of funding and action.
In other words, we have to find out all the things we have in common despite our differences in identity and bring back some real progressive populism.