Populism vs. Nihilism


As the Republicans in Congress furiously accelerate the train going down the tracks to a government shutdown, apparently hoping to do maximum damage both to the country and their party’s own political standing, some very interesting things are happening inside the Democratic party as well — the Larry Summers nomination going down, the surprise Bill de Blasio victory in the NYC mayoral race, the stunning Bill Daley decision to drop out of the IL governor’s race. These developments have more to do with each other than you would think, but not in ways the establishment conventional wisdom would be the least bit comfortable with. The difference between what is happening within the two parties is incredibly instructive as this fascinating moment in American politics.

Republicans have just lost it. Their epic leaderless meltdown with a government shutdown and an economy-derailing default on government debt looming and no endgame solution in sight is stunning and frightening. This will eventually get resolved because it has to, but who knows the amount of damage to the nation’s economy and moral standing in the world in the meantime. For the dominant wing of the Republican party, none of the damage matters. They hate government so much that any amount of pain they cause is worth it — not only worth it, in fact, but part of the plan. If our government can’t function, it is actually a good thing for these anti-government radicals, because they don’t want it to function. If the economy crashes, that’s good too, they think, because people might blame Obama for a bad economy. If chaos ensues and people don’t get their Social Security checks or food stamps or Medicare or disability support, all the better for these Republicans: the lazy leeches should fend for themselves.

This moment is the logical conclusion of decades of steadily higher levels of anti-government hysteria. The dominant wing of the Republican party is closer in viewpoint to the right-wing armed militia movement than it is to the old Bob Dole Republicanism of the last century. And as the country changes demographically and culturally, these extremist conservatives get more and more angry, bitter, and desperate. They want to wreak havoc, and because the so-called leaders of the party won’t stand up to the extremists, it looks like they will get to.

All of this is exacerbated by the fact that those working class people who respond to Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the Tea Party have a legitimate grievance: This economy has run a lot of them over like a Greyhound bus going 70 miles an hour. Not all of the Tea Partiers, mind you. Those funding that movement, like the Koch brothers, are continuing to make out like bandits. But a lot of Tea Party rank and file — those with underwater homes, declining wages, disappearing pensions, and rising grocery and gas prices — are feeling pretty desperate economically. And that makes them really mad. The genius, and evil, of the right wing movement is to focus that anger on poor people, immigrants, “the stranger” as the Christian Bible would put it. They feed people rhetoric out of Ayn Rand about makers and takers, about welfare cheats and leeches on society. They get their followers focused on their selfish tendencies, trying to get them obsessed that someone somewhere is cheating the system and living high off the hog paid for by their tax dollars while they are struggling to survive.

When you are hurting and desperately trying to keep body and soul together while your odds steadily worsen, it is no surprise that people get angry. The biggest question is who they get angry at. The goal of the right wing is to make them angry at the other people struggling to make it.

Populist progressives also want to stir people’s anger at the fact that times are tough, but in combining hope and intelligent solutions with that anger, are creating something constructive in the body politic. In less than a year, Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Tammy Baldwin, Chris Murphy, and Bill de Blasio have all faced down incredibly well-financed opponents with populist campaigns that emphasized not only attacks on big money special interests but real solutions about the tough economic problems we are facing. Progressives in Illinois made it clear to Bill Daley he wasn’t going to get the nomination despite being brother of the last mayor of Chicago, extremely close to the current mayor, and former Chief of Staff to Obama. And in a major upset of conventional wisdom, progressives organized an incredibly tough and effective effort at keeping Obama from nominating Larry Summers for Federal Reserve Chair, something Obama made clear to everyone in D.C. that he really wanted to do.

Something is stirring in the progressive wing of the Democratic party, and people are starting to notice. Reporters are calling around to progressive leaders and writing stories about how things are changing. Talk about an insurgent progressive challenge to Hillary Clinton, who has been wearing the mantle of inevitability for a long time, is steadily rising.

There is no rocket science to all this. Tough times and massive concentrations of wealth and power at the top tend to stir up progressive passion. And when you have an effective spokesperson with a powerful brand like Elizabeth Warren, a lot of people will get excited about pushing progressive ideas and candidates.

The contrast between tea party extremism and populist progressives could not be more telling. Both are based in part on the anger tough times stir up, but these two movements are moving in opposite directions. Tea Party conservatism is out of control and out of ideas, spiraling down the drain and trying to destroy everything in its path. The progressive movement is on the rise, fueled by ideas and excitement about how we build something, namely a strong prosperous middle class that is growing again as wages rise and concentrations of wealth and power are broken up.

Mike Lux is CEO of Progressive Strategies, a D.C.-based political consulting firm for non-profits, labor unions, PACs and progressive donors. He served in the Clinton White House from January 1993 to mid-1995 as a special assistant to the president for public liaison. He wrote The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be. This appeared at HuffingtonPost.com. Follow him on Twitter @ProgressiveLux.

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2013


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