Despair Not An Option

There are a lot of angry people out there, and we have plenty of reasons to be mad. But that doesn’t mean we have to be stupid.

The Tea Party movement claims to be a populist organization that spontaneously erupted from the grassroots to protest Barack Obama’s usurpation of the White House and his “socialist” attempt to provide an economic stimulus and health insurance for the 44 million working poor who earn too much for Medicaid but are too young for Medicare.

But those “grassroots” were groomed by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, political advocacy groups linked to oilman David Koch and other Republican operatives. Events were promoted by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox “News” and the Wall Street Journal. Also, there are several Tea Party groups, but Tea Party Nation, a for-profit corporation, charged $549 for a convention in Nashville that drew about 600 teabaggers to hear such luminaries as former US Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who longed for the good old days of literacy tests for voters, and former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), who thinks we should abandon hope for change.

We have been disappointed in President Obama’s performance so far, but, unlike the teabaggers, we give him credit for trying. When he entered the White House in January 2009, he inherited a Wall Street bailout to avert a possible economic meltdown. Without that bailout, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson now says, we might be struggling with a 25% unemployment rate instead of just under 10%. “If the system had collapsed, millions more in savings would have been lost,” Paulson said at a congressional hearing Jan. 27, according to MarketWatch. “Industrial companies of all size would not have been able to raise funding and they would not have been able to pay employees, this would have rippled through the economy.”

But Obama and his crew gets little credit for averting a depression. Not from the 9.7% of Americans who are unemployed, another 6.8% who are underemployed, and probably twice as many more who are worried about their jobs. And the Wall Street titans aren’t happy that Obama wants to restore some of the regulations on financial speculation that Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress repealed in 1999.

Obama has proposed a fee on the “too-big-to-fail” banks to recover the balance of funds that taxpayers laid out to rescue those banks. “Now, I know Wall Street isn’t keen on this idea,” Obama told Congress. “But if these firms can afford to hand out big bonuses again, they can afford a modest fee to pay back the taxpayers who rescued them in their time of need.” Democrats applauded while Republicans sat on their hands.

President Obama sounded populist themes in his State of the Union speech, but the Democratic Congress needs to get a health reform bill, a jobs bill and a financial reform bill to his desk this year. Republicans are determined to sabotage those initiatives, even at the cost of prolonging or worsening the recession. Senate Democrats have yet to show they’re up for the fight.

Populism — the belief that people are more important than corporations — has its roots in the Boston Tea Party, which was a reaction to the British government’s attempts to enforce a tea monopoly in the American colonies. It is ironic that the current-day “Tea Parties” were formed in reaction to Obama’s attempt to limit the corporate control of the health industry.

The Populist movement grew in the 1880s and 1890s as an agrarian revolt against the excesses of capitalism, as corporations, particularly railroads, expanded after the Civil War. The Progressive movement (which included Democrats and Republicans) incorporated much of the Populist agenda in the early 1900s. That led, among other things, to anti-trust regulations, progressive income tax, direct election of senators and the vote for women, as well as a prohibition on corporate involvement in politics.

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, in reaction to the Great Depression, was in some senses a culmination of the Populist movement, with its creation of programs that saved family farms, gave people jobs on public works projects and enabled workers to organize into effective unions as well as beefing up anti-trust regulations and enacting the Glass-Steagall Act, which for 66 years prevented banks from getting involved in the kinds of speculative trades that nearly brought down Wall Street last year.

After World War II, big business set about to repeal the New Deal under the cover of defeating communism. Labor unions lost much of their power with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act over Harry Truman’s veto in 1947. Large agribusiness interests started taking a bigger role in agriculture. Washington-based corporate lobbyists moved into the halls of Congress as big business systematically co-opted the Democratic Party leadership as well as the GOP. President Dwight Eisenhower warned about the growing influence of the military-industrial complex on his way out of the White House in 1961.

The populist wing of the Democratic Party survived to promote John Kennedy’s New Frontier program and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, including passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, but Republicans cynically used passage of the civil rights laws in the 1960s to gain a foothold with white supremacists in the South.

Today there aren’t any real populists in the Republican leadership. The GOP economic philosophy is still “trickle-down” doctrine — that the government should help rich people and corporations so they will hire the poor people. Populists believe that government should side with the workers and small businesses against bosses and large corporations, and government should help consumers against unscrupulous merchants.

Liberal Democrats in the House and Senate are friendly to populist causes until the lobbyists descend just prior to votes.

For example, on two key votes in 2009, centrist Dems joined with Republicans to sink two progressive initiatives. Democrats split 45-12 on Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.)’s amendment to allow bankruptcy judges to modify the terms of home mortgages. The measure failed 45-51 (4/20/09) despite Obama’s support.

Then, on one of the few progressive measures to get a Senate vote on the health care bill, the White House helped whip 31 Dems to join 17 Republicans to kill Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.)’s amendment to allow Americans to import lower-priced prescription drugs from Canada. The amendment got a 51-48 majority (12/15/09) but it needed 60 votes to pass. (The White House had agreed to lay off the pharmaceutical companies in return for Big Pharma going along with the reforms, and it’s likely that some of the Republicans who supported the amendment were hoping it would help sink the whole bill.)

Another recent populist action was on Ben Bernanke’s reappointment as chairman of the Federal Reserve. Bernanke was confirmed 70-30 on Jan. 28, with 11 Dems (plus Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.) and 18 Republicans voting against him.

In short, populism still wins elections for the Democrats but big business pays for the campaigns — and usually gets their bills passed. That’s why we need public financing of congressional campaigns (as well as a constitutional amendment to keep corporate money out of politics).

Still, populists need to keep the pressure on Democrats. We also need to continue organizing and developing resources such as the Internet and independent media that present progressive points of view. But we can’t give up.

When Sen. Sanders appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal Feb. 2, a caller expressed despair about the state of our union. He was fed up with corporate power in Washington. “I give up,” he said. Sanders told the caller, “Despair is really not an option ... You can throw your hands up and say, ‘It’s too much, I can’t deal with it’ or you can say this is tough stuff and how do we once again bring ordinary people into the political process? How do we create a government that works for the middle class instead of the wealthy? It ain’t easy, but giving up is not an option.” — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2010


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