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A Political Strategy for Our Times: Progressive Populism
Economic improvement, treating voters decently, and respect for the small in government. Just three good principles to help get a new politics going. And a lot of it has to do with style and tone.
By Sam Smith
Liberalism is dead. It started going into its final throes when liberals jumped aboard the Clinton campaign, claiming that the toy boy of the Democratic Abandonship Council was really a one of them. Later on, even the anti-worker and anti-environmental trade deals, the assault on welfare, and the deep corruption didn't dissuade them. They were, if you asked, "being realistic."
But if you go back just four years earlier, it becomes clear that the motivation wasn't realism but cowardice. The right had so frightened liberals that they would take anyone with a hyphen and a capital D after their name.
Just four years earlier, the Democratic liberal everyone likes to ridicule - Michael Dukakis - had done something neither the media nor the liberals will even mention today: he got a higher percentage of the vote than Clinton - 46% vs. 43% - and he got better percentages in such heartland states as Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming.
In fact, Clinton wouldn't have even made it to the White House if there hadn't been a split on the right thanks to Ross Perot. And Clinton only got two percentage points more than a real liberal - Walter Mondale - had when he ran against the invincible Ronald Reagan.
With the surrender to Clinton it was already clear that liberals had lost their purpose in life, which had once been to do the most for the most. Now they were just part of a sycophantic crowd, not unlike the audience at a Tyra Banks show.
What had caused this collapse? A major, and sadly ironic, explanation is that the paleo-liberals of the New Deal and Great Society had been so successful in advancing the status of their constituencies - including blacks, labor, women, and Jews - that those who had advanced the most became increasingly separated from less successful members of their own ilk and of the less successful generally. Thus the gap in America that liberals had once tried to close now existed even within its own ranks.
The result was an unhinging of the liberal constituency with decreasing interest by the liberal elite in the concerns of those they had left behind.
Because I grew up in a paleo-liberal family, I am acutely aware of the change. My father had been in the New Deal almost from the start and lasted into the Truman years. What a liberal was about was part of my being.
These folks made plenty of mistakes - including failing to move fast enough on civil rights as well as hyping the Cold War and downgrading civil liberties after Joe McCarthy accused them of being soft on communism - but one thing they got right. With programs like the minimum wage, protection of unions, Social Security and later, under LBJ, Medicare, liberals looked after the average folk.
Now, not only do they not serve the greater part of America, they don't even seem to like it all that much. They offer few policies on its behalf and they scold, ridicule, patronize and insult the very constituency that FDR and LBJ were so successful at reaching. Not too surprisingly, that constituency has gone looking elsewhere for friends.
And today's liberals don't even seem to care that much that it's happened. As a child of earlier liberal values, I don't even have to read op ed columns to find this out. I just feel it listening to liberals talk and watching what they do. They are no longer group leaders of progress but just more groupies of power, and we're all paying a huge price for this shift.
The 2008 election offered the last big opportunity for liberals to show their worth. They found their candidate, elected him and then continued cheering as he escalated the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, created a weak and ineffective economic recovery program, failed to deal with soaring foreclosures, announced plans for offshore oil drilling and a return of nuclear power, supported Israeli apartheid, signed an extension of the Patriot Act, approved unconstitutional wiretapping, opposed the protection of gay marriage, and created a huge new subsidy for private health insurers in the false name of universal healthcare.
In short liberals sold themselves out with Clinton and now have sold us out with Obama.
At present there is nothing that liberals have to offer. In fact they serve a negative function, as a form of political pornography that gets the right all excited. They are the dirty pictures that the Tea Parties show each other.
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.
You can call this 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.
Central to this politics are the economic conditions of ordinary lives, the issue liberals have so strongly abandoned. As just a few examples, a progressive populist platform might include:
There is nothing to be gained by simply being the mirror image of the Tea Parties, but a lot to be gained by changing the nature and tone of the debate. There is also absolutely nothing wrong with going after Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, but to declare all their fans terminally ill is the death knell for one's own politics.
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. This bias can be felt strongly in the policies of the Obama administration and in the attacks on any who support the Tenth Amendment that accuses them essentially of being new age states rights segregationists. This is not only factually wrong, it is politically stupid, because people in this country strongly rate their state and local government better than the feds.
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.
It is interesting to note that Obama appears headed for a mid-term election disaster similar to that of Bill Clinton's. By the end of Clinton's second term, the Democrats has 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. And to this day, both liberals and other Democrats refuse to even notice that it happened. They like local lettuce - but not local politics.
Part of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that both Clinton and Obama suffer from a political narcissism that defines success as a personal possession rather than as a national benefit, which is not only bad for the country, it's terrible for their own party. Obama might well listen to the tapes of Lyndon Johnson, late in the evening after winning the 1964 election, calling politicians around the country to thank them for their help. After talking to a county chair in Texas, he asks - by name - for his wife. He then tells her how wonderful her husband has been. There was a politician who knew the importance of the small yet got more national progressive bills passed in less time than we may ever see again.
Economic improvement, treating voters decently, and respect for the small in government. Just three good principles to help get a new politics going.
And a lot of it has to do with style and tone. For example, ending imperial warfare may sound great in Manhattan but not so good in Butte. But what about a demand to return to the governors their control over the National Guard in their state? That would accomplish some of the same thing. In other words, progressive populism must speak United States, not PBS News Hour.
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. There is no reason why progressive populism can't have as allies at various moments - Greens, Libertarians, liberals and even Tea Party members.
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."
Creating a new movement won't be easy. God knows, I know. Way back in 1965 I wrote an article headlined, "Where are the Gutbucket Liberals?" - back when I didn't even think Johnson was moving fast enough. I said:
Perhaps the saddest of the lot is the professional Washington liberal. He is the most vocal in his claim of liberalism and quickest to accede to the whims of the illiberal. The professional Washington liberal attends White House conferences on this and that, writes articles for the press, testifies before congressional committees, and feels proud when he can help tack on fifty million dollars to a piece of constructive-sounding legislation. Yet give him a legislative placebo to salve his conscience and he will beat his reactionary compatriot to the Chevy Chase Club by a half hour every time.And then in 2002 after Bush had won:
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."So, yes, I repeat myself. But time is running out so perhaps yet another plea in the dark may be forgiven. Are there any other progressive populists in the room?
Sam Smith edits the Progressive Review.
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