Demagogy Isn’t Populism

We wish we could credit the Tea Party movement with having populist instincts, but the evidence so far shows that these insurgents have been little more than a tool for corporate interests as they seek to take down Barack Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress.

Teabaggers supposedly rose up spontaneously, inspired by CNBC commentator Rick Santelli’s Feb. 19, 2009, rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange against government bailouts of Wall Street banks, Detroit carmakers and struggling homeowners. We understand the resentment against bankers and corporations whose bad gambles wrecked the economy but then got bailed out by the government. But the teabaggers’ first major fight was in defense of insurance companies during the health reform debate. Then the teabaggers were uncommonly silent when it came to the Republican defense of Wall Street bankers in the financial reform debate.

It appears that teabaggers are more concerned with protecting the “free-market” system against Big Government than with protecting the working stiff against Big Corporations. The teabaggers don’t recognize the deregulation of the banking system in 1999 as the reason the economy got warped. Instead, many blame ACORN for organizing low-income neighborhoods and the Community Reinvestment Act for tempting bankers to make subprime loans in those neighborhoods. (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Chair Sheila Bair noted that 75% of subprime loans originated from mortgage lenders not regulated by the CRA, which she called a “scapegoat” — nowhere did it say banks should make loans to homebuyers who couldn’t afford it — but the facts hardly seem to matter.)

It helps to understand that the major funders of the Tea Party movement include the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, owners of Koch Industries, the largest privately owned company in the US. The Kochs are free-market ideologues who oppose virtually all government regulations. They have funded conservative and libertarian causes for years. They finally ignited a popular movement with the fervor against the bailouts. The tea parties have been organized by Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, which are run by Washington lobbyists.

The teabaggers are clearly on the side of organized money, which is flowing to support their efforts. On Sept. 21, the Tea Party Patriots, a coalition of more than 2,500 local tea party groups, announced that it has received $1 million from an unnamed donor to fund get-out-the-vote efforts and local tea party operations. The Tea Party Express, run by Republican consultant Sal Russo, has reported $5 million in donations.

Organized money is able to manipulate low-information voters, such as the man who told Rep. Robert Inglis (R-S.C.) to “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” Even after Inglis explained that Medicare was provided by the government, Inglis noted, “he wasn’t having any of it.”

Inglis voted against health care reform and had a 93.5% rating from the American Conservative Union for his two terms, but that wasn’t good enough for the teabaggers; his vote against the 2007 surge in Iraq and for the Bush bank bailout in 2008 left him open to attack and Inglis ended up getting swamped in a runoff against tea party candidate Trey Gowdy. Inglis worries about the long-term prospects for the GOP: “It’s a dangerous strategy to build conservatism on information and policies that are not credible,” Inglis told David Corn of Mother Jones.

Many conservatives appear to be inoculated against facts, as they are taught to distrust anything that doesn’t come from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh or other approved information sources. If rightwingers are told that Obama is a socialist Muslim from Kenya who wants to set up death panels, despite ample evidence to the contrary, there is nothing liberals (or moderates) can do to convince them otherwise. But if the wingnuts have taken over the Republican Party, they are still less than 20% of the general population. That 20% can’t win a general election unless the other 80% doesn’t turn out to vote. Get your friends out to vote.

Immigration Roadblock

Right-wing demagogy also taps into economic anxiety and nativist resentment against minorities and immigrants. That is why immigration reform is too hot to handle for Republicans who a few years ago were open to reform.

Even the relatively modest DREAM Act, which would allow children of immigrants to earn a “green card” for permanent residency if they enrolled in college or enlisted the military, was blocked Sept. 21 by a Republican filibuster despite the military’s need for more recuits. Dems hold a 59-41 Senate majority, but they need 60 to pass a bill and Republicans have come under intense pressure to block all measures that would improve the economy, reform immigration or let gays stay in the military, at least before the midterm election. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the bill might be reconsidered after the election.

Big business isn’t bothered by the immigration reform breakdown, which is one reason you’re not likely to see major reforms enacted anytime soon.

Ray Marshall, former secretary of labor under Jimmy Carter and professor emeritus at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, has been advocating immigration reform for years. He wrote “Immigration for Shared Prosperity” for the Economic Policy Institute (epi.org). At a recent meeting of Austin Democrats, Marshall said that Ted Kennedy told him the biggest mistake he made in his efforts to get an immigration bill was to keep compromising with the US Chamber of Commerce. “All they were interested in was cheap and compliant labor,” Marshall said of the business lobbyists. “They want ’em indentured and they’re not likely to agree to changes in the present system.”

Immigration reform should promote “shared prosperity,” which has worked for Democrats going back to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. “Growth is not as important as shared prosperity,” he said. “We’ve had growth over the past 20 years while wages and benefits have been declining.”

Marshall said the reform should not offer amnesty but “earned legal status,” with carefully balanced carrots and sticks to coax the immigrants out of the underground economy.

Immigration reform also requires better control of temporary worker programs, such as the H1B visa program, which allows US companies to import 85,000 workers each year in fields where there is supposed to be a lack of American workers. The workers are bound to their jobs because if they quit, they lose their visas and must leave the country.

The L1B visa allows companies to bring in foreign workers with specialized skills into the US to work up to five years. Then the workers and their jobs can be transferred back overseas.

Marshall noted that consultants put on seminars on how employers can fix the hiring process so that they won’t have to hire an American worker.

Historically, labor unions have been anti-immigrant, but they have come to realize that immigrants are a growing workforce, who, as long as they are undocumented, can be threatened with deportation if they cause any trouble or try to organize a union. Now unions are the most powerful pro-immigrant groups in America, he said.

Unions should be part of the enforcement process. Under his proposal, if workers and employers agree on standards, the Department of Labor should defer to them. But if there’s no union, he said, the feds should say, “We’ll make the rules and we’ll enforce them.”

Under those circumstances, he said, you’d be amazed how hospitable some businesses can get toward unions. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2010


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