Progressive Populists: Stand up and Fight
Populism survived the right-wing radio preachments of Father Coughlin
in the 1930s and '40s; it survived the Cold War diversions of Joe McCarthy
in the 1950s; and it survived George Wallace and the southern white backlash
in the late 1960s and '70s. And Populism will survive into the 21st century,
notwithstanding pretenders such as Pat Buchanan and the Christian Coalition
and the disdain of the establishment press, because Populism is deeply ingrained
in the American character as a progressive force for democracy. But Progressive
Populists must make their stand.
Buchanan at least got the rich folks' attention for a few weeks in February
and March. Republican leaders had to scramble to rally the troops behind
Bob Dole, the bagman for the Business Roundtable. The natives were rounded
up and driven back into their compound at the country club, but not before
an exasperated Rush Limbaugh was moved to scold his unruly audience: "I'll
tell you something, you are being manipulated in a way I find very bothersome,"
he said. "Pat Buchanan is not a conservative. He's a populist."
The classical definition of a populist is a person claiming to represent
the common people, an advocate of agrarian and working-class interests and
an opponent of monopolies. Often populism is confused with demagoguery and
xenophobia (the fear of foreigners); possibly that is where Limbaugh was
confused. Buchanan is less a populist than a demagogue who thinks the cure
for rapacious corporations is to seal our borders from immigration. (Limbaugh,
on the other hand, is a demagogue who thinks that rapacious corporations
are not a problem.)
When Buchanan criticizes corporations that put profits ahead of their workers'
benefits, he is taking a populist stand. When he criticizes free-trade agreements
that allow corporations to move jobs overseas, and when he opposes immigration,
he is taking half a populist stand.
Bruce Krug, a dairy farmer from northern New York, noted that Buchanan touched
a raw nerve when he criticized corporations, and the Establishment's response
was telling. "When you look at social issues, there's not a paper's
width of difference between Buchanan and Dole. It's only when he stands
up for blue-collar guys that they call him an extremist."
Progressives have alternatives for fair trade; see Joel Joseph's "Free
Trade Bill of Rights" on page 9 of this issue of the Progressive Populist.
Without labor's right to organize, those "free trade" agreements
simply promote the export of jobs to low-wage countries, where workers usually
are cowed into submission by repressive regimes. Without reciprocal assurances
that our trading "partners" will honor labor rights, as well as
human rights and environmental standards, those "free trade" agreements
are worthless. They only empower multinational corporations to whipsaw American
workers and reduce the standard of living in the United States.
Remember, as Hal Crowther does on page 21, that Buchanan got his break as
a hack in the Nixon-Agnew administration, where he was one of the architects
of the Republican strategy to realign the South by exploiting the white
backlash against civil rights and voting rights legislation. That policy,
cynical but effective, is still paying dividends for the GOP. The Southern
Bourbons simply switched their party affiliation from D to R and encouraged
the prejudice, as they have since the Civil War, that every gain for blacks
comes at the expense of working-class whites.
How far is Buchanan from real populism? No one ever heard him propose more
taxes on the rich and their capital gains. By the time, late in the primary
season, that Buchanan embraced the moribund bill to prohibit the permanent
replacement of strikers, Dole already had the Republican nomination all
but locked up. The plutocrats were setting back into their overstuffed chairs.
For a review of the history of populism and phony populism, see the article
by Harry C. Boyte and Nancy N. Kari on page 10.
During Buchanan's surge, the establishment press briefly paid attention
to working-class issues. The New York Times ran a week-long series on hard
times hitting the middle class, Business Week editorialized about "The
Backlash Against Business," Newsweek's Feb. 26 cover story was on "The
Corporate Killers," and editorialists everywhere seemed to discover
that big corporations were hurting large numbers of middle and working-class
people. As Ward Morehouse of the Program on Corporations, Laws and Democracy
said, "The Times even felt the need to remind corporate leaders that
the United States is a democracy, not just an economy.'"
Corporation critic Richard Grossman has nothing good to say about Buchanan.
"I think he's a total menace," said Grossman, co-director of the
Program for Corporations, Law and Democracy. In his view, Buchanan's only
value is ironic, in showing "timid fools" in the Democratic party
that they can strike a chord with populist issues. "If we're lucky
it's a precursor to a real populist movement," he said.
These populist pretenders are not addressing the real problem in Grossman's
view: the nature of corporations and the need for people to take power away
from corporations. "Labor Secretary Robert Reich wants to give them
more incentives to act nice. We're trying to redefine the question to make
it possible to focus on the real problem, and that is the nature of corporations."
Some 3,500 people showed up March 7-10 for a Public Interest Environmental
Law Conference in Eugene, Ore., to discuss ways to control corporations,
including revoking corporate charters and reversing judicial decisions that
granted corporations the rights of personhood and "managerial prerogative."
"I have tremendous hope," Grossman said. "It has been 100
years since folks have actually gone after the corporate jugular and tried
to end corporate power. I think corporations are much more vulnerable than
they would have you believe. It's bringing together dairy farmers, conservatives,
libertarians and progressives and they all are concerned that their lives
are in alien hands." (To contact the Program, call 508-487-3151.)
Peter Kellman, an organizer with the Maine chapter of the Program on Corporations,
Law and Democracy as well as the "Wicked Good" 2nd Maine Militia,
said a recent demonstration in the state capital, Augusta, Maine, drew people
who ranged from the radical environmental group Earth First! to Buchanan
"I think he's tapping into something the Left has missed," Kellman
said of Buchanan. Kellman, a former union activist, sees the growing hegemony
of corporations since 1978, when Congress passed the Humphrey-Hawkins bill
for full employment. Ever since then, the Federal Reserve Board has ignored
the law in setting interest rates and corporations have been consolidating
their power while the standard of living for workers has dropped.
Now, with the end of the cold war, Kellman said, "It's a classic time
for realignment. The question is whether progressives are prepared to act.
As a populist, it's clear to me that the question is not about capitalism
vs. communism. It's about the concentration of wealth and power. Our culture
revolves around us as consumers. Buchanan comes around and says the problem
is corporations, but he doesn't really address the problems of corporations.
He recognizes something is wrong but he doesn't say what to do about it."
The 2nd Maine Militia was organized in December by working-class novelist
Carolyn Chute for working-class gun owners who don't hate but want to control
corporations and kick them out of political life. Its second meeting in
February drew 150 people. "They were a broad-based group that showed
a wide range of people share the same concerns about corporations dominating
our culture," Kellman said.
"Our hope is that we've backed off doing things at a state or national
level and instead we've got people working locally. Most organizations I've
seen, whether they're environmental or public interest organizations like
Common Cause, their attitude is that whoever donates money is a member but
very few people make decisions. We're trying to go back and rework those
kinds of organizations based on the needs of local groups."
He added that the trend toward mobile franchises in professional sports,
where owners expect fans to support them until they find a more lucrative
deal elsewhere, also has helped to show people what corporations stand for.
Cleveland is the latest city where residents have found that consistent
support for their football team is not enough to prevent an owner from abruptly
pulling up stakes and moving down the road. "One place it can't happen
is in Green Bay because the people own the team," he said.
So what are the prospects for a progressive populist movement? John
Kinsman, a Wisconsin dairy farmer and the national president of Family Farm
Defenders, said many farmers were attracted to Buchanan -- Kinsman found
himself agreeing with much of what Buchanan was saying. Progressive populists
have to take back that rhetoric.
"He is good, like many right-wingers, at using the down-home language
that (farmers) relate to. This is something the Left and the Democrats don't
even try to do. He knows all the buttons to push. At least on the surface
he says that corporations are bad, and GATT and NAFTA are bad and free trade
is going to destroy us ... and that's true. But they think that the enemy
is illegal aliens and they blame welfare and labor unions for their troubles."
Still, Buchanan is speaking their language. "The Democrats or the populist
people aren't listening to rural, small-town people. For the others, the
only farm policy is international trade."
He added that "progressive" groups don't make any headway in the
Heartland when they denounce right-wing Christian groups. Many people perceive
those denouncements as an attack on all religious values, particularly when
they hear the right-wing party line on radio talk shows all day.
"Progressive populists need to speak their language and get that message
out. People are looking for a decent living. They know that the food they're
buying is not as good as it should be, but they can't afford anything else.
They're working in unsafe factories in small towns and all farmers are forced
to take jobs in town just to keep their farms."
When Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1988, Kinsman said, "I saw
some people who were just one generation removed from the Klan who were
voting for Jackson because he speaks our language. And these are diehard
Farmers need the support of the urban and suburban middle class, but Kinsman
said, "You can't move the middle class out of their comfort zone until
they feel the pain in some way. And we have to move the middle class out
of their comfort zone.
"If we can reach the urban people, that's where the hope is. Farmers
have fought so long that they don't see any hope. Urban people have to realize
that if the family farmers die out and the corporate farms take over, they
won't have the choices on price or type or the amount of food that is available.
"I am confident that if we can get a dialog going between the farmers
and the consumers, that we're in it together, that we can work together,
but the farmers have been made to believe that the consumers are the enemy.
The Farm Bureau has been especially bad about getting that message out."
For more on farm issues, see Merle Hansen's essay.
No organization is better able to mount a counterattack against the
corporations than the trade unions. Even in its diminished state, organized
labor has 15 million members and the rededication of the new AFL-CIO leadership
toward organizing drives is welcome.
There also is a serious attempt to organize a Labor Party. Tony Mazzochi,
special assistant to the president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers
International Union, has spent several years organizing the Labor Party
Advocates. The effort has the support of unions representing more than 1
million members. The advocates will hold a founding convention for a Labor
Party June 6-9 in Cleveland. [For information, call 202-234-5194]
Mazzochi sees a possible coalition between farmers and labor. "Just
as workers are losing jobs because of multinational industries moving overseas,
small farmers are being booted off the land by the concentration of agribusiness.
It's not like it used to be when there were millions and millions on the
land, but we work with farm workers and family farm groups."
Buchanan's appeal to the working class is no surprise to progressive union
leaders. "We've been warning for years that unless there's a progressive
alternative, somebody like him [Buchanan] would come along with populist
rhetoric and fascist undertones."
Union members are undeniably alienated, he said. "We've done a lot
of polling - I ran a poll of our members in 1989, when I was secretary-treasurer
of OCAW, that found 55 percent thought the Republicans and the Democrats
both represented corporate interests and 55 percent thought we ought to
explore a new party."
Labor Party Advocates aim to set an agenda in 1996 rather than run candidates.
"I'm amazed that people define politics as running candidates. You
need a movement before you run candidates," he said. "We're building
a party that will be able to articulate a vision of what America should
"I see the purpose of the party to educate people. The centrality of
their concern is economics and if we're able to convince them that we represent
their interest on economic issues, the other issues are going to be addressed
later on. ...
"People have to organize within their own constituency. They have to
make themselves aware of economics. There's got to be a coherent program
that addresses all these concerns and then you mobilize people around it.
But you can't lecture people. They've got to understand it's in their best
interest. But we're organizing the working class and we're not afraid to
talk about class. We're down and they're up and we've got to shake it up
and address those concerns."
Steve Cobble, a New Mexico political strategist with the Rainbow
Coalition, compared Buchanan to a doctor who arrives at the correct diagnoses
of the problem - the lack of good jobs - but then prescribes poison to deal
with it - banning immigration and attacking affirmative action. He cited
Jesse Jackson's imagery of an airplane that can take off even though it
is loaded with baggage. "Buchanan's message was strong enough to lift
Cobble said the Rainbow Coalition's top priority is taking back the U.S.
House of Representatives and replacing Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House.
"In order to stop the right-wing tidal wave it is important to take
back the House before the Republican majority becomes institutionalized,"
Cobble said. (Call the Rainbow Coalition at 202-728-1180.)
There is hope in the fact that Bill Clinton has resuscitated his re-election
hopes by defending Medicare, school loans, education funding and the environment,
Cobble said. "These are not New Democrat programs," he said, referring
to the Democratic Leadership Council, which has embraced a more conservative
agenda, "and the press has been surprised to see that people like those
Cobble's hope is that Bill Clinton, a student of history, will try to make
his mark in a second term. "He knows how you get in the history books
and that is by instituting broad-based programs that help people."
In any event, he predicted, "You'll hear more talk about the minimum
wage, Medicare, student loans and programs that help average people."
Of course, we heard that in his first campaign, too.
Larry Goodwyn, the Duke University historian who is perhaps the foremost
authority on the agrarian populist movement, is dismissive of most attempts
to organize a populist movement around a figure or a theme. "Popular
politics cannot happen in this country by people making nice speeches and
even people writing good articles," he said. "Popular politics
can only happen when popular bases are organized, which is what the Christian
Coalition has done. And which [progressives] have not done. How to do this
is not part of growing up liberal. We do not learn how to do this by reading
approved publications. Nothing is going to come of attempts to build democratic
politics in this country until progressives understand that politics is
organizing. And they don't want to do it and they don't understand it and
One of those who is trying to organize locally is Ronnie Dugger, who sparked
the populist Alliance with his "Call for Hope and Action" in the
August 14, 1995, issue of The Nation.
"I think it's premature for the Alliance to seek publicity ... but
I think our hand is forced by Buchanan. Populism certainly deserves a bad
name when it is associated with many of the things that Buchanan stands
for, and of course he is no populist. He is a protectionist who is associated
deeply enough with the right-wing conservatives in the country that he is
independent of the corporate establishment ... On the other hand he is opposed
to the minimum wage; he is for the 'right to work' law. That is no friend
of the working people. That is an enemy of the working people.
"Basically, I am representing to my colleagues that we should have
a founding convention, perhaps the week before the Democratic Convention
in Chicago, in order to advance this 21st-century populism to contrast with
Buchanan's nativist populism; in other words to inform the country that
an alternative is organizing."
The founding convention would promulgate a statement of principles as well
as issues and priorities. "The premise here is that the issues are
not the issue, the system is the issue ..." Like Grossman, he believes
"we need to take on the corporate oligarchy." (Contact the Alliance
Bill Clinton so far has not shown a taste for taking on corporations. He
has not even supported Labor Secretary Robert Reich's proposal to give corporations
incentives to act responsibly. But the possibility of a Ralph Nader presidential
campaign on the Green ballot in California, Maine and several other states
will give voters an alternative if the Democrats take progressive populists
for granted. The National Independent Politics Summit also is working to
put together a slate of local independent candidates who share progressive
principles. The platform will be finalized at a conference in Atlanta, Ga.,
April 12-14. For information, call 718-624-7807.
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