Populism Calls Us to be
More than Protesters

Again this election, candidates are striking a populist pose. Al Gore, who helped found the Congressional Populist Caucus in the 1980s, says, "I'm fighting for the people, not the powerful!" George Bush says, compassionate conservatism, largely individual acts of charity, is "government truly by the people and for the people." Ralph Nader explicitly invokes the populist legacy, and has the support of well-known populists like Jim Hightower, radio talk show host.

What we need is a populism that calls us to be bold, effective citizens, not simply protesters or caring volunteers. We don't have it yet.

Populism calls for "return of power to the people." The question is, what does "returning power" to "the people" mean in a complex, information society?

Ralph Nader is worth looking at in more detail. He raises important issues, from bosses who read our internet mail to the uprooting of communities in the global economy. Moreover, his "deep democracy" of citizen involvement is timely in a period of declining voting levels and growing public distrust of government. But Nader's populism is a fairy land, where the people are innocents, the corporations are villains, and democracy will come when we break them up.

Instead of a populism of grievance, we need populism in which people help to solve public problems and create lasting civic change. Thomas Jefferson is a better guide here than Ralph Nader. Jefferson argued that "the only safe repository of the powers of the republic" was "the people themselves," and meant this as involvement in "the government of affairs every day of the year, not simply one day on election day." Jefferson had the distinctively American view of democracy that Alexis de Tocqueville later noted: the people bears final responsibility for the work of the nation. Government is a partner, not a proxy. Jefferson was also not naïve about the "the people." He believed they needed "education" to "exercise power with a wholesome discretion."

Today, combining civic engagement with civic learning is even more essential. Government alone can't fix most public problems we face, which are complex, with few saints or sinners. We need civic education that teaches how to work across lines of difference, and how to understand problems in many-sided ways. Most important, we need to see ourselves as citizens, not mainly victims.

A local effort to address the consumer dynamics that threaten children and families illustrates the sophisticated public work required for our time. Ralph Nader is eloquent on the "commercialization of childhood." Nader tells of advertising aimed at children as young as five, without their parents' knowledge, with clothing lines like "Streetwalkers." "The old-model corporation never sold directly to kids, except maybe bubble gum. They let parents decide what to buy for children," he said in his acceptance speech to the Greens. "Today the corporations are electronic child molesters, subjecting children to violence and low-grade sensuality."

Yet making corporations singularly responsible for commercialization of childhood ignores the fact that we all have created the consumer culture. We have become a nation of "consumers," no longer the "producers" of the New Deal generation. We choose candidates like brands of toothpaste. Addressing this pattern mean self-change as much as institutional change.

Thus, when William Doherty of Minnesota's Family Social Sciences Department, a colleague in our citizenship efforts at the Humphrey Institute, began working with families in Wayzata on the problem of "overscheduling" -- kids' frenetic pace of sports, dance, and other activities that erode family time -- he uncovered the deeper pattern. Parents, worried about their children being left behind, push coaches for more practice. College admissions judge individual success. Children judge each other's teams like they judge brand names. It makes no sense focusing on who is to blame. Everyone is responsible.

Wayzata has launched a citizens movement -- Family Life 1st -- based on the learning that few families can resist alone. The movement works with coaches, ministers, and the media to bring under control the forces that erode family life and sustain the culture of excessive commercialism. It created a "Family Life Seal of Approval" to promote culture change.

Family Life 1st is like a hologram for the approach required on problems ranging from violence and the environment to school reform, or the dangers of the internet. Political leaders can call us to the tasks and provide tools. But today's populism should not be mainly about fixing blame. We need a populism that changes ourselves as well as society if we are to balance private greed with public good. As Pogo put it, we have met the enemy and he is us.

Harry Boyte is a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, 301 19th Ave. South, Minneapolis, MN 55455; email hboyte@hhh.umn.edu. This originally appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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