Tuesday, October 13, 2009
WHY POPULISM IS IMPORTANT AND WHY THE DEMOCRATIC INTELLECTUALS DUMP ON IT
John Emerson, Open Left - Populism is politics which opposes wealth and power in the name of the common folk. It takes both left wing and right wing forms and sometimes degenerates into bigotry and attacks on minorities. Populism can be faked, and that is being done right now - e.g., Limbaugh and Beck. Populist appeals can be made by spokesmen for special interests who have no intention of fulfilling their democratic promises, but who are just opportunistically faking populism as part of an attack on some enemy. . .
Since the Fifties the Democratic Party, whose populist wing was critically important during the New Deal, has avoided and repressed populism. Individual populists such as Paul Wellstone have occasionally been elected, often in defiance of the party machine, but they have never had much influence in the party. The Democratic strategy has been cooperation with big business, and their slogan has been "a rising tide lifts all boats" -- "win-win" solutions where everyone wins and nobody loses. . .
When they made their deal with big business, the Democrats became a wonky party of technocrats and expert administrators . . . As part of this transformation of the party, the Democrats needed to misrepresent populism. Since then there's been an almost unmixed stream of slanders coming from both parties, until by now anyone counts as a populist as long as they're abusive, ignorant, racist, and dishonest. . . .
During most of the period since the Civil War, however, progressive energy in this country has mostly come from movements of the populist type working outside the parties or against the party leadership: Greenbackers, Progressives (three kinds), Socialists, Farmer-Laborites, Nonpartisan-Leaguers, and independents -- to say nothing of unions, farm organizations, and civil rights groups. (Martin Luther King's movement was essentially populism, albeit minority populism).. . .
The Populist Party was a national party only from 1890 to 1896; when they endorsed the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, in return for very small concessions - this basically destroyed the party. . . Altogether the Populists elected ten governors, six Senators, and about forty Congressmen. In 1892 the Populist candidate got 8.5% of the vote for President and carried four states and parts of two others. . . Presidential third parties seldom come close to winning, and the populists are no exception. Furthermore, as often as not the third party doesn't survive the election, and that was essentially the case with the Populists. But the Populists had enormous significance -- by bringing poor farmers and labor, and their issues, into the electoral equation for the first time, by stealing voters from some of the Democratic and Republican constituencies, and above all, by disrupting the other two parties' strategies. . . .
After the collapse of the Populist Party the attitude of the Democratic Party toward small-p populism was ambiguous. Many of the Populist issues were kept alive by progressives working mostly at the state level -- the national campaign organizations in 1912 and 1924 were ad hoc and short-lived. The Democratic leadership was as stodgy and business-dominated as ever, but) if they ever wanted to win they still needed to get as many votes as possible from ex-Populists and their Progressive successors. .
By 1932 the Populist Party itself was a distant memory, but between 1932 and 1938 (Roosevelt's most progressive period) Roosevelt and the Democrats relied heavily on support from populist - progressive Senators and Representatives - some from third parties, and some from dissident factions of the two major parties. The progressive-populist faction pushed Roosevelt steadily to the left in domestic policy. . .
Because of the religious appeals, moralism, and majoritarianism of the Populists (and many Progressives), from WWI on, the technocratic New Republic liberals held Populists and Progressives in very low regard despite their many valid proposals, . . .
In 1948 the Democrats purged its left, much of which had populist roots, and the right populists mostly ended in the Republican Party. . . Meanwhile, Democratic intellectuals. . . developed a theory holding that all populism is ultimately totalitarian, either Fascist or Communist.
My main conclusion is that the Democrats have crippled themselves by renouncing populist and majoritarian appeals while presenting themselves as expert administrators and effectively allowing the Republican Party to cash in on fake populism. This strategy hasn't worked since 1968, and it has crippled the Democrats by making them incapable of counterattacking against blatantly dishonest fake-populist appeals by the Republicans. . .
The institutional Democratic Party is not anti-populist by accident. In order to change its direction, we will have to take it over from the bottom up and bounce the present leadership.
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- I grew up in Chautauqua County, NY. I graduated from Edinboro University of Pennyslvania in 1981 with a BFA in Jewelry and Metalworking. I have been married 31 years. I currently run a small business with my husband. We both enjoy the outdoors and animals a great deal and live on a tiny farm in Western, NY.