Reclaim Populism

Many people confuse the demagoguery of politicians such as former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and the Tea Party movement with populism. They have turned the definition of populism around and it’s time that progressives reclaim the good name of populism.

Since the late 19th century, populists have believed that government should protect working people, small businesses and family farmers and ranchers from predatory corporations. Dick Armey, the former Republican congressional leader, and FreedomWorks, the conservative non-profit organization he founded that is funded by business executives, have tried to turn that populist tradition on its head in organizing the Tea Party movement to protect corporations from government regulation.

The right wing’s attempt to claim the legacy of populism is one of the reasons we called our newspaper The Progressive Populist. When we talked to people about plans for the paper in 1995, many asked why we were calling it “Populist,” which was still widely identified with the late segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace and other right-wing politicians.

Populism is part of the venerable American tradition of rebellion, but it dates back to the Farmers Alliance that formed in Lampasas, Texas, in 1877 in an attempt by farmers to overcome the power of commodity brokers and railroads through collective action. When Democratic and Republican elected officials failed to support the Alliance’s economic agenda, the People’s Party was formed in the 1890s in an attempt to create a national political movement to advance that agenda.

The People’s Party, also known as the Populists, sought to bring together white and black farmers and workers in the South and Midwest with the Knights of Labor, an early industrial union in the Northeast, to make government a force for economic justice. The original 1892 platform declared, “We believe that the power of government — in other words, of the people — should be expanded ... as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.”

In addition to their economic reforms, the Populists sought democratic reforms such as a secret ballot, direct election of senators, the vote for women and initiative and referendum to let the public pass laws when their legislators refused to budge. The Populists also sought a graduated income tax, public ownership of railroads, telegraph and telephone systems, an eight-hour workday and replacement of national banks with a savings bank operated by the Post Office for the benefit of working people.

The Populists achieved political successes in the South and West, carrying four states (Colorado, Kansas, Idaho and Nebraska) in the 1892 presidential election. The party, often working in fusion with one of the two “major” parties, elected many state officials and members of Congress in the South and West. A coalition of Populists and Republicans swept statewide offices in North Carolina in 1894. But the Populists lost much of their appeal when the Democrats adopted much of their agenda in 1896.

After the Populists were defeated in 1896, Southern Democrats enacted “Jim Crow” laws to disenfranchise blacks and segregate them to prevent future biracial coalitions from forming. Laws were enacted in many states to stop “fusion” campaigns, where two or more political parties support a common candidate. (Fusion remains legal in eight states: Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Mississippi, New York, Oregon, South Carolina and Vermont.)

Many of the Populist causes were adopted by Progressives in the early 20th century and the New Deal in the 1930s. But ever since World War II, the right-wing corporatists have engaged in a sustained counterattack to drive a wedge between farmers and labor and between white and black voters. We think the Tea Party movement is part of that reactionary counterattack. If they’d like to change our minds, they can get to work whipping their Republican senators on Wall Street reform.

Score on Wall Street Reform

In the meantime, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) won a major victory May 11 with approval of his amendment to the Wall Street reform bill, to audit the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending activities and disclose which banks received some of the $2 trillion in special loans from the Fed since December 2007. The Sanders amendment, approved 96-0, also requires the Fed to disclose future emergency lending programs. In the face of opposition from the White House, Wall Street and the Fed, Sanders compromised from the House version, which called for continual and more comprehensive audits of the Fed. House conferees may still push for their version, but Sen. David Vitter’s amendment to restore the House language in the Senate bill failed, 37-62.

Sponsors of the House provision were mixed in their reaction. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who wants to abolish the Federal Reserve, criticized Sanders’ compromise as a sellout, which he said “guts the spirit of a truly meaningful audit,” and instead amounts to a mere “disclosure.” But Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) applauded the Senate action. “There is deep bipartisan support for a full audit of the Federal Reserve, in both the House and the Senate,” Grayson said. “The Sanders Amendment takes a significant step in that direction. I will work hard to help Dr. Paul and Sen. Sanders to get a full Fed audit in the final bank reform bill. It is time for America to know what happened to our money.”

Speaking before the vote, Sanders said, “This is not the end. This is the beginning. We are beginning to lift the veil of secrecy on what is perhaps the most important agency in the United States government.” Later, he credited the strong grassroots pressure on senators with turning what he feared would be a bare majority for the measure into unanimous approval.

Unfortunately, there apparently was no such pressure for a proposal by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) to break up the nation’s biggest banks by imposing caps on the deposits they can hold and limits on their liabilities. The Senate voted it down, 33-61. (See the roll call in Dispatches.)

Remaining to be voted on as we went to press were several other amendments, including one by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) that would force big banks to spin off most of their derivative businesses. That would insulate derivatives trades from the sort of abuse Goldman Sachs is accused of.

Robert Reich noted, “The White House dismisses all three of these three measures as ‘populist,’ as if that adjective is the equivalent of ‘irresponsible.’ But in fact, these amendments are necessary in order to restore trust in our financial system. They would reduce Wall Street’s tendency to take huge risks, pocket the wins, and fob off the losses on the public.”

Another progressive measure that has White House support is an amendment by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore) to ban big banks from using government-insured capital to engage in market speculation. That is the “Volcker Rule” — named after former Fed Chair Paul Volcker, who now heads the President’s Economic Recovery Board. While that is a good step, an amendment sponsored by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) would go further to enact a 21st-century version of the New Deal-era Glass-Steagall Act that banned banks that accepted deposits from playing the securities markets in any way. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) has an amendment to make the Consumer Financial Protection Agency independent of the Fed. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has an amendment to stop banks from shopping for the most favorable ratings agency.

If Democratic members of Congress can’t be populist in reining in Wall Street banks that nearly wrecked the world economy, then we need better Democrats. — JMC

Uphold the Constitution

The Obama administration is way off base if it proceeds with Attorney Gen. Eric Holder’s proposal to carve out broad new exceptions to the Miranda rights established in a landmark 1966 Supreme Court ruling. The procedure now generally forbids prosecutors from using as evidence statements made before suspects have been warned that they have a right to remain silent and they may consult a lawyer.

Republicans have been irresponsibly criticizing the Justice Department for informing terrorism suspects of their rights, including Faisal Shahzad, a US citizen accused in the attempted Times Square bombing. Holder said the administration is thinking about ways to modify the rules to give interrogators to give “something that is flexible and is more consistent with the threat that we now face,” even though Shahzad reportedly has been cooperating with investigators after he was read his rights. Previously, the administration was criticized after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the accused “Christmas Day bomber,” was read his rights, even though he waived them and continued talking.

Republicans want terror suspects to be treated as military detainees without constitutional rights and outside the jurisdiction of criminal courts — or the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of soldiers. But the American way is to treat terrorists as criminals, prosecute them in US criminal courts and, if convicted, hold them in US prisons like any other sociopath. The system works.

Congress cannot waive a terrorist suspect’s Fifth Amendment rights. Only the suspect can do that. Obama and Holder know better.

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2010


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