What is a Populist?

By Max Sawicky

"The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up the fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty ... We declare that this Republic can only endure as a free government while built upon the love of the whole people for each other and for the nation ... " -- The Omaha Platform of the Populist Party, 1892


If the term "populist" is the merely popular, it is meaningless since popular fashions change and usually lack depth. If it is merely anti-elite, the question becomes, which elite? When? All of them, always? If so, once again there is no meaning. History provides some guidance. The origin of the movement in the 19th century provides a template for the present. The same themes and issues are with us.

Forget the Time magazine clichés and read the quote carefully. Economic inequality is not merely the haphazard outcome of some blind social process. The rightful earnings of the millions are stolen, the aspirations of a Horatio Alger thwarted, thanks to the machinations of a tiny, sociopathic minority. Did Pat Buchanan ever say that? Sorry, a right-winger cannot be a populist. Barack Obama? Afraid not. (Kos of DailyKos.com? Never mind ...)

The old movement consisted first of impoverished agriculturalists, and second of allies in the emerging labor movement and, believe it or not, Prohibitionism (hold your jokes for the moment). What were their concerns?

Farmers in post-Civil War America were battered between the hammer of falling commodity prices and the anvil of monopolized services in the fields of credit and transportation. The bad guys were thieving bankers, landlords, middlemen and railroad tycoons. For industrial workers, the enemy was the bosses, their political stooges, and their armed flunkies, both public and private. For Carrie Nation and friends, it was the destruction of family life and finances of the working people by alcoholism, a habit indulged by Capital.

The domination of various corrupt, moneyed hierarchies was sanctified as the expression of market forces and enterprise. Victims of alcoholism were blamed for their own failings and offered religion as a remedy. Sound familiar? All three groups saw their salvation in cooperative, collective action. What would a true, modern populist advocate?

• A foreign policy that rejects bloated military spending and routine interference in the affairs of others;

• Fighting the Federal Reserve and the banking industry for the sake of tight, inflation-risky labor markets that would spur wage growth;

• A strong system of social insurance to protect workers in retirement, disability, unemployment, injury, and ill health;

• Rejection of the dogma of free trade.

• Counteracting the domination of corporate interests by the construction of cooperative institutions in civil society, especially trade unions, and a revitalized, professional, high-quality civil service;

• The broadest possible tax base, to include capital gains, dividends, stock options, the site value of land, rents from resource extraction, financial transactions and great wealth; a serious attack on tax evasion.

I could go on, and so could you. One certainly sees glimmerings of these notions here and there among the assorted electoral successes, but the journey to come is a long one. Bottom line: populism is about the bottom line -- ours, not theirs. Growing inequality is a formula for a nation of "tramps and millionaires." We do not need more scalable demonstration projects of market-based public-private partnerships.

Who will tell the people? Who will lead the tramps?

Max B. Sawicky is a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a member of the National Executive Committee of Americans for Democratic Action and the author of the "MaxSpeak" weblog at maxspeak.org/mt. (His views are his own.)

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