Monday, July 16, 2007

Democrats as "Populists"?

A news story in the New York Times today claimed that the Democratic
party was moving toward "populist" politics, away from the "centrism"
of the Clinton years(even though Hilary's Clinton's putdown of trickle
down economic policy was quoted as an example of the new "populism").

What the story is saying or trying to say is that the Democrats are
relatively moving to the left as they prepare for 2008, but its
language makes it difficult for readers to understand both what is
happening politically and as citizens to act politically to influence
policy makers and policies.

After WWII, when terms like Communism particularly, socialism, and
even progressivism became taboo in mainstream media, Americans were
taught to reduce all politics to this very simple analysis---pluralist
politicians and movements who engaged in the politics of deal making
and represented the center(the "Vital Center" as the prominent
historian and public intellectual Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., called it)
and populist politicians and movements of the right and the left who
incited masses of people with radical agendas. Pluralism was "good"
and "populism" was bad, which meant that mass movements of all kinds
were in principle bad(in practice, it meant that the movements of the
left were always bad.)

The Populists were a late 19th century agrarian radical party in the
United States who denounced the Trusts and the urban rich and
advocated both the democratization of politics(secret ballot, direct
election of Senators, etc) and government based economic programs to
aid farmers and workers(mostly farmers) in the form of expanding the
money supply(which would produce lower interest rates) through "free
silver"(ending the "Gold Standard" associated with high interest
rates), and public ownership of railroads, grain storage facilities,
postal savings banks, and other government policies aimed at limiting
railroads, banks, and large corporations from price gouging farmers
and small businessmen.

The Populists were destroyed in the South through terroristic violence
against them, the disenfranchisement of Blacks generally, and devices
like the poll tax which were used to disenfranchise poor whites. In
the West, their merging with the Democrats in 1896 to support William
Jennings Bryan's presidential campaign as a Democrat reduced their
independence as a party. In the early 20th century, some populists
became socialists, others, especially in the South, sought to lead
poor whites in the Democratic party(often by accepting or even
instigating anti-Black racism) and others dropped out of politics in

The Democratic party which became a majority party in the 1930s owed
more to the Socialist and Communist parties and traditions then it did
to the Populist party, which had been defunct for thirty years at
that time.
And the Democrats, if they are to win a national election, have much
more to learn from both the socialist and communist programs and
traditions, both as they were carried forward in the New Deal period
and subsequently, than from a "populism" that denounces the wealth of
the corporations and the rich and advocates ending government
favoritism for the corporations and the rich without addressing the
underlying structural conditions of contemporary monopoly
capitalism/imperialism or, as it is known in the 21st century,

First, the Democrats must implement serious policies for labor instead
of expecting labor to provide them with funds and volunteers merely to
hold off the Republicans. The party leaders that the NYT article
quotes seem to consider a pro labor position on trade(that is,
challenging the "free trade" ideology which has accompanied the loss
of millions of jobs in the U.S.) and perhaps a reversal of Bush tax
policies and a shift of some funds to social services as all that the
Democrats have to do.
But that is just a beginning. What is needed after a generation of
reaction is active federal aid to unionization drives which could
only follow the complete repeal of Taft-Hartley, the restoration of
the original National Labor Relations Act and the establishment of
the union shop through the country, ending all the "right to work"
laws and intervening actively through the NLRB on the side of labor,
Southern labor especially, in organizing drives in what are today the
"right to work" states.
A national "industrial policy" which would connect tax benefits and
other subsidies to corporations to those corporations policies in
producing high paying domestic jobs, improving the environment, and
advancing policies that raise living standards both domestically and
globally, would be another part of a progressive policy that the
Democrats could and should advance from the best of their own New Deal
tradition. This is at least as important as trade treaties.
Also, there is, or at least was in the world of the New Deal
Democrats, such a thing as a "mixed economy," meaning that certain
sections of the economy, energy and other natural resources for
example, should be publicly owned and developed to prevent the sort of
disasters that we have seen with companies like Enron and also as part
of an overall development policy that would connect affordable energy
with pro environment ecological policies.

Then of course, there are policies such as a serious updating of the
minimum wage, extension and enforcement of overtime rules and general
elimination of all of the loopholes in federal labor law) a serious
national health system establishing socialized medicine(if they want
the Democrats can call such a system "populist" medicine) along with
revival of public housing and new rent control laws to reduce the cost
of and the enormous inequalities that exist in housing.

All of this, along with aid to education and transportation, might be
grouped around the overall principle of "public sector restoration"
which is what the people who vote for the Democrats and tens of
millions who vote for no one and are completely outside of the
political process both want and desperately need, not platitudes about
trade policy and rhetorical forays against the corporations and the
rich. What I am writing about is a 21st century version of the
policies that the New Deal and Great Society Democrats took from
Communist, socialist, and left labor sources and enacted in an
incomplete fashion from the 1930s to the 1970s, the policies which
both improvied the quality of life and the economic and social
equality of the American people and(this is probably more important
for Democratic politicians) made the Democrats the majority party of
the country.

Who knows, some Democrat might even revive the call of Robert La
Follette, Sr., the great governor and Senator from Wisconsin, who
opposed U.S. entry into WWI as a war in the interests of the Trusts
and the war profiteers and advocated nationalizing military industries
as both an economic and peace policy(some socialists rejected that on
the ground that it would give the government a larger interest in
warfare, but even a partial public ownership of the industrial part of
the military industrial complex might save a minimum of tens of
billions and also begin to take the private profit out of a foreign
policy that creates and feeds off military interventionism.

I wouldn't call those policies "populism" but they are the policies
that offer hope to the working people of our country.
Norman Markowitz

No comments: