What is a Progressive Populist?

The response to the first issue of the Progressive Populist has been so positive and gratifying that we have qualms about attempting a second issue. But eventually we must define more clearly what we are about. In the process, perhaps, we will excite dissent.

First of all, we are here to serve as a forum for those people who find themselves increasingly left out of national political and economic discussion: the farmers, the workers and progressive small business people. We do not accept the prejudice of "conventional wisdom" that small farmers and blue-collar workers are doomed and must accept what the agribusiness giants and multinational corporations allow them, nor that entrepreneurs cannot be considerate of their workers and their communities.

One question we hear is: Aren't the terms "progressive" and "populist" mutually exclusive? We think not. Many on the left seem to link populism with the demagogic excesses of reactionaries such as George Wallace and, farther back, Joe McCarthy and Father Charles Coughlin. But those critics need to look a little earlier, to the formation of the Farmers Alliances and the People's Party from 1877 through 1896, for a better view of the possibilities of populism.

Some historians have ridiculed Populist economic proposals, which were designed to help the landless as well as small farmers survive in the face of economic concentration (even though some of those proposals made it into law in the New Deal). Some critics have focused on the anti-Semitic, nativist and racist characteristics of some Populist leaders. But the formation of the Farmers Alliance and the People's Party showed that a cooperative movement could cross racial, class and sectional barriers.

That movement broke down in 1896 when the party split over whether it should nominate one of its own for President or join with the Democrats. Ultimately the convention accepted the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan, who went down in defeat after the industrial moguls poured money into the Republican campaign that elected William McKinley. Meanwhile, the fusion with the Democrats ultimately caused the Populists to lose their organizational momentum.

The election of 1896 made the United States safe for corporate capitalism and Jim Crow laws enacted throughout the South made sure that no such alliance of working-class whites and blacks would take place in the foreseeable future.

Many of the former populists joined with the Progressives in the early 20th century and later helped to form Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal coalition of farmers, workers and small businesses during the Great Depression. Even those New Deal reforms are seen as a triumph of mainstream liberalism over the more radical restructuring proposed by the Populists and their heirs, such as Louisiana's Huey Long.

But it was not until the Populists joined with the Progressives that they got a real measure of power and improved the lives of working people. In the generation since the progressives have gone their own way, they have retreated to the margins of American political life. But the people are still out there.

Now we have a ferment of alternative political action that is being largely overlooked or discounted by the mainstream media, even as popular discontent builds. While most of the media's attention has been focused on Ross Perot and his United We Stand movement, there is plenty of potential for a progressive populist movement as well.

A Times Mirror survey in August found that almost half the potential voters disapprove of both Clinton and the GOP leaders, and of these discontents 63 percent favor an independent presidential candidate. But unlike 1992, the survey found, "the new third-force voters more often have a Democratic pedigree...[and] are younger, poorer, and more likely to be women than were Perot voters."

The media recently have been fascinated by the machinations of centrists such as Bill Bradley and Lowell Weicker to form a party that could co-opt middle-class discontent and prevent the emergence of a progressive electoral alliance. But, practically unnoticed, Third Parties '96 drew representatives of 40 progressive groups to Washington, D.C., this past June to discuss the possibility of mounting an alternative campaign for president. Another summit was held Jan. 5-7 in Washington. For information call Linda Martin at 703-642-5710.

Ralph Nader has allowed his name to be placed in nomination for president on the March 26 Green Party ballot in California in an effort to stimulate a debate on the distribution of power, its abuses, and reforms. "I intend to stand with others around the country as a catalyst for the creation of a new model of electoral politics, not to run any campaign. The campaign will be run by the people themselves and will be just as serious as citizens choose to make it," Nader said in a press release.

The Greens expect to run in many Congressional races in the five states (Alaska, California, Maine, New Mexico and Oregon) where they have ballot status. In seven other states ballot status is seen as a possibility, while Nader could qualify as an independent candidate in four other states. But most of the activity has been at the local level, where the Greens already have elected 70 people to municipal and school board offices, including one elected to a county council in Hawaii. For information call 510-44GREEN.

New Party candidates won five of six races they ran in November, as well as one of the two ballot measures. They won two Missoula, Montana, City Council races, a school board race in Little Rock, Ark., two City Council races in Bladensberg, Md., including the first-ever New Party Mayor, and in Milwaukee the New Party candidate made the runoff in a special election for school board, while, in a victory for the living wage campaign, the City Council passed an ordinance requiring all city contractors to pay their employees at least $6.05 per hour. Currently, the New Party has ballot status in Wisconsin. Call 800-200-1294.

The National Independent Politics Summit in Pittsburgh this past August stopped short of the launching of an independent presidential campaign backed by a coalition of third parties and progressive groups. Instead, the summit called for another summit April 19-21 in Atlanta, Ga., and a national Caravan and March for Social Justice to begin on May 12 (Mothers' Day) and culminate in a mass demonstration on Wall Street. For information call 718-643-9603.

A group of self-styled populists, responding to journalist Ronnie Dugger's Call to Rebuild a Populist Movement published in the August 14/21 issue of The Nation (and reprinted elsewhere, including the premiere issue of the Progressive Populist) have organized into what has tentatively been named the Alliance. The group hoped to call a national conference in St. Louis in February, but the steering committee moved the prospective site to Chicago and delayed the conference until this summer to allow for more organization. Call 617-491-4221.

Labor Party Advocates, whose organizers have been working with local unions for several years to prepare the way for a worker political movement, will be holding the founding convention of a new Labor Party in Cleveland, Ohio, June 6-9. Call 202-319-1932 for details.

And we know we'll be shouted down for even bringing it up, but there is nothing that says progressives can't take over the Democratic Party. As labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan wrote in the winter 1996 American Prospect, "If we can't take over the Democratic Party, there's no point in starting a third one." The Christian Right's takeover of the Republican Party is a useful model.

We are not trying to replicate the populist movement of the 1890s, but that experience offers the lesson that cooperative organization is possible, albeit only after careful attention to getting grassroots involvement and educating the people about their common interests, common enemies and what they can do about restoring democracy.

In the process we have met good people like Merle Hansen, a farmer from Newman Grove, Nebraska, and leader of the Nebraska Farmers Union. "Progressives have to start winning arguments in the coffee shops," Hansen told us. That requires a change in the rules of political debate that are enforced by the Establishment media, and that will take a newspaper like the Progressive Populist.

"They've outlawed certain things that we can't talk about and one of them is class. And when you can't talk about class then you start talking about conspiracies and pretty soon you've got a militia movement going. But one thing they don't want you talking about is this business of who really owns this country."

We think it is time to reopen that discussion.

On the Budget: Up the Ante

Republicans in Congress headed into the holidays thinking they held the trump cards in the budget face-off. They decamped for Christmas vacation, leaving 280,000 government employees out of work, and inconveniencing millions of Americans who needed the everyday services of the federal bureaucracy. With their lockout of federal employees, the GOP congressional majority pursued a brinkmanship strategy designed to force President Clinton to buckle and accept the dismantling of programs that date back to the New Deal. All the while the Republicans protest that they want to take the government's hand out of the pockets of babes yet to be born....

What a fraud! The American public should feel insulted and polling appears to show that it is starting to come around. But it will be another 11 months before our referendum on the Contract with America.

In the meantime, the budget is the defining document of the GOP counter-revolution. The Republicans--who won control of Congress with only 27 percent of the electorate--believe they have within their grasp the means to dismantle Medicare and the 60-year-old guarantee of federal assistance to the poor. They would move Medicare toward a voucher system in which retirees would buy their own health insurance, while they turn over responsibility for Medicaid and most other welfare programs to the states. The National Leadership Coalition on Health Care estimates that nearly eight million Americans could lose their medical insurance over the next seven years under the GOP plan.

On the strength of their narrow victory in 1994, the Republicans also want to cut spending for education and student loans, weaken environmental and workplace safeguards, sell or permit more commercial development of government land, reduce spending on research and cut back farm assistance programs. And while balancing the budget is the nominal goal, they want to cut taxes by $245 billion, with most of the breaks going to the wealthy. At the same time they are forcing single mothers on welfare to find minimum-wage jobs, they also are scaling back the Earned Income Tax Credit that helps the working poor.

Yet Congress advances a bloated military budget of $264 billion for 1996, raising it to $271 billion by 2002 and larding on billions more than the Pentagon requested. It passes virtually untouched $100 billion a year in corporate welfare in the form of tax breaks and subsidies. In comparison, the $15 billion the federal government pays to five million poor single moms and their nine million children seems a scrawny target for budget balancers.

Clinton, to his credit, favors a modest tax cut, tilted toward the middle class and working poor, who actually are more likely to pump that money back into the economy. He wants to maintain Medicare and Medicaid pretty much as they are now and he would expand government spending in education, environmental protection and technological research.

The Democrats should hold the line. There is plenty of money in this nation to balance the budget relatively painlessly if Congress had the will to tax the people who have profited from decades of deficit spending--Wall Street and the nation's wealthiest families. As Kevin Phillips points out in his 1994 book, Arrogant Capital, "because large-scale deficit reduction ... would give its greatest profit to financial-market investors, that is where a significant portion of new revenue should be raised."

Rather than cut the capital gains tax, which the GOP has been pushing for years as a sop to its wealthiest patrons, Phillips argues for a surtax on capital gains on bonds or other financial assets to the same maximum rate that applies to ordinary income. Another possibility is an excess-profits tax on banks or financial institutions that sold junk bonds or made bad loans, until taxpayers were reimbursed for the untold hundreds of billions cost of the savings-and-loan bailout. A third levy would be a small tax on financial transactions, such as currency swaps, derivatives speculations and stock and bond purchases. As Philips put it, "Even a few small decimal points of those whirling, swirling trillions, along with other financial transactions, could put $10 billion to 15 billion a year into the Treasury. Instead of means-testing Social Security recipients, Washington could means-test speculators."

Finally, if it's brinkmanship the Republicans want, let the federal government go into default. One advantage of owing as much money as the United States does is that a lot of bankers in New York and overseas have a stake in keeping Uncle Sam afloat. Let them sweat a little.

Agriculture Wins Mention

It is interesting that agriculture won special mention in the short-term budget compromise reached by President Clinton and congressional leaders. Agriculture is among six areas that are supposed to be protected from "unreasonable cuts," according to the compromise that ended the first recent government shutdown. This agreement is supposed to provide a framework for ongoing budget negotiations.

Other areas included Medicaid (health care for the poor), the environment, veterans affairs, defense and education.

"We think this is a pretty significant achievement," says Mark Halverson, agricultural advisor to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Problem is, no one knows what this special mention means. What is an "unreasonable cut"?

Further, what portion of the agriculture budget is supposed to be protected? Farm price supports, export enhancement or child nutrition?

This question is vitally important to the farm sector, which depends heavily on the millions of dollars in annual crop subsidies. Like it or not, the farm bill fuels the rural economy.

Halverson would like to think that the budget agreement means that the debate over farm subsidies will "start over at the ground level."

Republican aggies in Congress propose to cut farm subsidy spending by more than $12 billion over the next seven years in hopes of balancing the budget. Clinton had proposed cutting $4.2 billion over 10 years.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman continues to maintain that farm subsidies should rise and fall with commodities markets. His visibility and insistence on the topic indicates a level of support from the boss.

"Clinton has an interest in agriculture and knows the most about it of anyone in the Administration," Halverson said. He senses a sincere commitment to maintaining some sort of price support system.

Halverson thinks that the Republicans' "Freedom to Farm Act" has been dealt a "severe setback" in the budget deal. Freedom to Farm would give farmers a flat annual payment regardless of their current production or market prices. The payments would expire in seven years.

Harkin calls Freedom to Farm "welfare."

Philosophical debates aside, pragmatic politicians will look to the easiest alternative in a budget crisis during the year before an election. Bob Dole is not interested in radically reforming agriculture programs just before the Iowa caucuses, when even the Farm Bureau is not solidly behind Freedom to Farm.

That means a farm program that looks pretty much like the current version, with less money attached. With strong grain prices, that sounds like pretty good policy so long as its benefits are aimed at the independent, family farmer. At least it will get everyone through the next election without stubbing a toe on an issue that is not at the top of the nation's attention.

It is heartening, however, to see agriculture mentioned prominently as something worth protecting. Over the past decade we began to wonder if the family farm would be left to free-market fanaticism.

Equal Opportunity

We have been saying for some time that rural areas deserve equal opportunity and access to the information age as their urban neighbors. Few appear to be listening.

So it was encouraging to hear no less than Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, computer genius and billionaire, say the same thing.

Speaking with David Frost in a television interview, Gates said that telecommunications infrastructure in rural areas and lesser developed nations will become a key issue in economic and cultural development.

Gates specifically mentioned that urban areas have more fiber running to more places than rural areas. One major deficiency is that rural areas do not have the same capacity to transmit large amounts of data quickly. It is a void that no telephone company plans to fill soon, certainly with Baby Bells standing in the way with their government-endorsed monopolies.

Gates obviously has an interest in seeing that the entire world is wired to the fullest so his products can permeate every corner. At the other end, less developed areas will not be able to enjoy the boom in information technology and development without adequate infrastructure. The Microsoft founder expects that competition among telephone companies and cable companies will bring full technology to rural areas. We do not share his boundless optimism.

First, barriers to competition among local communications carriers must be removed. Second, the Federal Communications Commission should require that companies wanting to serve Kansas City must also serve Ozark Country with precisely the same sort of service at precisely the same cost. Small, independent phone companies strung across the Plains must not be effectively barred from serving rural areas.

This need not cost government a dime. Government merely has to say that US West should quit using its cash to sue Time Warner over cable plays, and instead be about the business of serving its rural customers.

Watch a child in kindergarten play with a computer and you realize that it soon will become a mainstay of interactive marketing, communication and production. Gates knows that this day will come sooner than later, and rural areas must not be left in the dust.

Where's the Bug?

Some readers have asked: Why don't you have a union bug? The short answer is that the Times Printing Co., which prints the Progressive Populist, is not a union shop but is owned by members of the Cullen family as well as the husband-wife printing team of Ric and Grace Casson. When Ric inquired about joining the printers' union he was rebuffed by a business agent who apparently thought his application was suspicious, since he had equity in the company. We think that business agent's attitude reveals an insight into why unions are in some of their current troubles. Other unions with which we inquired weren't interested in signing up only two members. We will remain an employee-owned shop (although union organizers are welcome to try Ric and Grace) and we hope union members will accept our good faith.

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