Populist Organizer at Home on the Range

by JIM CULLEN, Editor

Little Marais, Minnesota, a town of several hundred people on Lake Superior, northeast of Duluth, is a world away from where you might expect to find the base for a national progressive organizing campaign. But Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Pure Food Campaign, believes if progressive organizers ever hope to move off the margins of American political life, they had better move into places like Little Marais.

The Pure Food Campaign and its companion Coalition Against Life Patents and Biopiracy, which fights corporations seeking patents on living organisms, has been in Little Marais since 1988. That's when Cummins moved from Washington, D.C., where its parent Foundation on Economic Trends is still headquartered. Recently the Pure Food Campaign bought an old community center in the town of Finland, seven miles inland, where radical Finnish settlers used to meet. Cummins plans to turn it into a conference center and school for activists modeled after the Highlander Center in Tennessee.

Cummins also is a member of the steering committee of the Alliance, a new nationwide group that has arisen from journalist Ronnie Dugger's Call to Rebuild a Populist Movement, which was published in The Nation this past August and reprinted in several publications, including the Progressive Populist. The Alliance hopes to organize progressive groups along populist lines and Cummins is leading efforts to stage a national populist conference in Chicago this summer.

Although the setting of his base in the Mesabi Iron Range is remote, it makes sense, given the radical history of the area, which was settled in the 1890s, mainly by Finns who were noted for their socialist predilections. "The red Finns were very well organized; they didn't go to church but had Finn halls which were secular version of church and functioned as a buying club for food, a co-op, summer school for kids, athletic clubs and centers for organizing."

The town of Finland was settled in 1895 and there wasn't a church until 1954, Cummins noted. "For 59 years the red Finns held sway. The government cracked down several times on the red Finns, so they would change the name. The old Finn Hall became the Athletic Club at one point." But employment opportunities then and now were few: After high school, youths in Lake County can work as a lumberjack, or in the taconite mine 10 miles away in Silver Bay, or at a minimum-wage job in the local tourism industry. "So the Finns who still speak Finnish are all old and their kids are long gone."

Cummins and his associate are still perceived as outsiders, but they have gone out of their way to become familiar with the local history and to neutralize local opposition. They have recruited 25 other residents--most of them relative newcomers attracted by the rustic scenery--into a local alliance, which, among other things, has set up a food co-op. "We're building a movement among those who have moved here over the last 20 years and we're gradually winning over some of the lifetime residents," he said. Recently the group gave a dinner for the local residents who were 65 or older. "All 70 came, and they really appreciated it," he said.

For Finland's centennial this past summer the group prepared traditional Finnish food and fed 650 people. "They understand that even though these newcomers are green left wingers, they do have an appreciation for the old ways," he said. "We also made this BGH [bovine growth hormone] campaign really strong in this area. Everyone in this whole community literally signed a petition to demand that the stores not sell genetically engineered milk. None of the dairy farmers would use the drug." The group recently turned out 90 people to protest the contamination of the area's aquifer by a toxic dump left by the Air Force at an abandoned air base.

Nearly everybody in the county of 15,000 who is eligible votes, and they all vote Democratic, so he sees them as hospitable to his message. "I think we're well rooted enough to where eventually we're going to take over the township government and elect some real populists to the county board and control the planning commission," Cummins said. "Then we'll build a power base that's going to force the state legislator to be more radical. But these are optimum conditions for a rural area. It's not going to be this easy everywhere in the country."

Originally from Port Arthur, in Southeast Texas, Cummins received his early education in politics from his mother's Cajun relatives, who were Huey Long populists from Southwest Louisiana.

Cummins was active in left-wing activity, including civil rights and Vietnam protests, from the mid-'60s onward, "but I must say that I was in that wing of the movement that saw that we had to reach out to GIs and draftees and young workers, and organize at community colleges and working-class high schools and so on."

Gradually he rediscovered his populist roots. He was active in the Central American solidarity movement and spent five years in Central American and Mexico in the '80s and early '90s before he "finally realized we've got to build a national movement in the United States and it's got to be a movement that the majority can conceivably participate in.

He believes a populist movement can turn popular discontent into progressive action. Otherwise, it will go the other way.

"We have to redefine populism in a 21st-century manner and distinguish ourselves from the pseudo-populists of the Pat Buchanan/Newt Gingrich/Christian Coalition/Wise-Use Movement stripe. But I think there is such a thing as framing issues in a populist manner and organizing and agitating in a populist manner; I think the right wing has done their homework and they understand how to use these tools and they're using them very effectively and the only way to fight fire is with our own fire."

For example, he said, the Pure Food Campaign has developed what he calls "food populism" He explains, "We decided to start becoming in-your-face populists and stopped beating around the bush, stopped getting into rarefied discussions of whose scientific research is better than others. We just went out there straightforward and said do you want pus and antibiotics and hormones in your child's milk? If you do, Monsanto is collaborating with Clinton to force that on you. If you don't give us a call."

Cummins acknowledged that populism has a bad reputation among many progressive groups who are familiar with the racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric of right-wing populism. "I think African Americans and Jewish people are really closed-minded about the notion of progressive populism, and we might as well face the fact that we're on probation and we really have to prove ourselves, especially to those communities," he said.

But he also has little patience with elitist progressives, particularly those who write off churchgoing people. "This whole reluctance on the part of left-wingers and left liberals to dismiss religious thinking or political thinking that frames arguments in ethics and the Biblical tradition is totally wrong. I think populism not only focuses on the economics and the central problem of corporate tyranny and indentured government, but real populism has to frame our arguments in emotional and ethical terms as well if we want to be effective," he said.

"We're just getting our butts kicked by people who understand [the power of emotional appeals] and who do it, and we--meaning the activist rainbow in general--still think that there's something demeaning about approaching people as emotional creatures as well as rational creatures, as people who have religious and spiritual inclinations as well as the secular rationality. But this is an area that I think is absolutely key, and it is the number one issue for progressives to face in this country. I think populism has not been taken seriously for a combination of these reasons, but I think it's also why we're losing.

Cummins said the danger was not in unleashing popular emotion, but rather in allowing the opposition to use that emotion.

"I think the danger is clear: When you let the right wing monopolize the field, you lose. ... I think the danger is built into human nature. Humans are emotional creatures and humans are irrational creatures at least as much as they are rational. You either recognize that and you conduct your political activities accordingly or you lose."

He sees the Alliance as a chance to bring those progressive organizers together and set up a populist dialog.

"I think someone like Hightower or Molly Ivins have proven that you can reach a mass audience if you frame radical ideas in a populist manner. You look at Michael Moore on [TV Nation]. ..." Of course, Hightower lost his radio talk show after he criticized the ABC/Disney merger and Moore's show is in limbo at the Fox network despite its Emmy Award and support from the British Broadcasting Corporation.

"The lesson is that we've got to build our own information infrastructure because as we become effective the space that we've got now in the mass media is going to be taken back," Cummins said. "The same thing is occurring with the Pure Food Campaign. We've been enormously successful in interjecting this controversy into the mass media because we've learned how to manipulate the mass media; we've learned how to put on provocative demonstrations and develop relationships with journalists and so on, and we're experts at this, but it's not going to last forever. Once we become really effective they're going to shut us out."

He also acknowledged that progressive populists may face resistance from what he calls the "green and social-justice bourgeoisie" who are comfortable working within the corporate culture and don't want to upset the Establishment.

The Alliance should not threaten alternative political movements, such as the Green Party or the New Party, he said, although some leaders of those parties may well feel threatened. "We feel like we have to keep up a cross-organizational alliance to make these groups function properly and so in that sense I think third parties can only benefit from a civic league like the Alliance. It's like the Republican Party has benefited tremendously from the Christian Coalition being out there; in the same way I think we will be very helpful to third parties and even to honest Democrats if they'll listen to what we have to say."

But organizing takes hard work and patience, he noted. "In The Populist Moment by Lawrence Goodwyn [a classic history of the Populist movement of the 1890s}, he stresses that there are sequential steps that the populist movement of the 19th century went through, and if they didn't go through these steps in a certain order it couldn't have grown in the way it did. And we're at step one right now, which is that we've got a vision document--Dugger's "Call"--and if we'll spread this Call throughout the land and give people a telephone number they can call in their local area to talk to a live person and a good coach, then we can take the second step. But if we don't do that, it's not going to work."

The South is particularly ripe for populist organizing, he said. "I think the thing about populism in the South is that people immediately know what you're talking about. I was talking to some people in New Orleans about forming an Alliance and when you talk to people down there about the Huey Long tradition ... without the reactionary elements ... I think that's something that could capture the imagination of people in Louisiana and East Texas. Whereas if we come across as greens, or feminists or Democratic Socialists, we won't get anywhere."

He also warned that rights for homosexuals is not a populist priority right now. "What I'm telling gay people and lesbians specifically is that those are not the primary issues, that you cannot bring those up to people until you have won their trust and they want to work with you and then you start working on that.

"If I dismissed every farmer who made a homophobic remark over the phone, or if I dismissed every farmer that I've talked to in the Pure Food Campaign that made an anti-Semitic remark, I wouldn't have anyone to work with. But as I get to know them better, its a different story.

"You've got to listen to what people have to say, win their trust and then start struggling with them over these ideas. I always point out to these people with the anti-Semitic remarks, "You're talking about Wall Street, right? You're not just talking about Jewish people. And what you find out is that people who make anti-Semitic remarks who are affiliated with the Pure Food Campaign, they've never met a Jewish person in their life. They're not anti-Semites. They're potentially anti-Semitic but you've got to work on them. Generally people who are homophobic, they don't have a son or daughter or someone in their immediate family who's talked to them about it.

"But for damn sure, we've got to speak out against the PC movement because the PC movement has gotten us into the mess we're in. We can't go to the people with a laundry list of politically correct ideas and say 'Will you join us?' You've just got to say, 'What do you think are the most important issues?' and listen to them first, and try to convince them that progressive populism is going to incorporate their burning issues."

Contact Ronnie Cummins at 218-226-4164 or e-mail Contact the Alliance at 617-491-4221 or e-mail

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