New Populist Moment

Rallies in Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio and other points around the country to protest Republican power grabs show that there is popular support for unions, public employees and making the rich pay their fair share of government costs.

President Barack Obama, who still hopes to cut a budget deal with Republicans that will keep the federal government operating without gutting vital domestic programs, has largely stayed out of the state fights over collective bargaining, as Republican governors use hard economic times as a pretext to cripple public unions.

That’s just one of the reasons it is so important for progressive Americans to organize a populist movement that can act independently from the D.C. Democrats. Populists need to put pressure on Democrats to keep the interests of working people over those of corporations and also to encourage Republicans to moderate their positions.

Right wingers organized the Tea Party in 2009 as a fake populist movement to scare any Republicans who might cooperate with Barack Obama — and they largely succeeded. The Tea Party was set up as a “cat’s paw” for corporate and banking interests; it is no more a populist movement than the billionaire Koch Brothers who funded it — but with the support of Fox News and other conservative media, it has managed to convince many underinformed voters that regulation of insurance companies and banks threaten the United States.

Now, after a generation of “free trade” deals have sent millions of manufacturing jobs overseas, hollowed out US industrial unions and threatened the middle class, Tea Party Republicans are determined to destroy public employee unions at the state level in the hope that it will cripple the Democratic Party heading into the 2012 election cycle.

D.C. Democrats seem hesitant to fight back. They take their lead from President Obama, a centrist and a pragmatist. After Democrats lost control of the House last year, Obama embraced the GOP premise that deep cuts were needed in non-defense discretionary spending to get a handle on the deficit.

But the insurgency in Wisconsin showed there was still plenty of fight left among the rank and file. Instead of sitting in Madison and letting the new Republican majority roll over them with a bill that would rescind collective bargaining, sell off state assets and cut health care and other assistance for seniors, farmers and the working poor, the 14 Senate Democrats went on the lam to deny the Senate a quorum. As thousands of union supporters rallied in Madison and refused to yield, panicked Republicans closed off the Capitol, bent their own rules and they even broke the state open meetings law to pass a special bill rescinding collective bargaining for public employees — even after the unions agreed to concessions that would have resolved the alleged budget shortfall.

The unions lost the battle in Madison but they still hope to win the war as they have joined the state Democrats in organizing recall efforts against all eight Republican state senators who are eligible for ousting this spring. Gov. Scott Walker (R), who was recorded plotting to lie to Democrats to get them to return to Madison, may find himself facing a Democratic Senate this summer and his own recall election early next year. Rebellions are forming in other states where Republicans are pulling similar union-bashing power plays.

A Populist movement should elect better Democrats, when needed. Too many elected Dems care for (or fear) corporate executives on Wall Street more than they care for working people on Main Street. That’s why we ended up with a health reform bill that requires us to buy from private insurance corporations instead of simply expanding Medicare to cover everybody.

The financial reform bill last year offered a good opportunity to gauge who was willing to stand up to the powerful monied interests. Three attempts to amend the financial reform bill offered an insight into the progressive populist base in the Senate.

Twenty senators (19 Democrats and one independent) voted the populist position on all three amendments: Mark Begich (AK), Barbara Boxer (CA), Sherrod Brown (OH), Roland Burris (IL), Ben Cardin (MD), Bob Casey (PA), Byron Dorgan (ND), Dick Durbin (IL), Russ Feingold (WI), Al Franken (MN), Tom Harkin (IA), Pat Leahy (VT), Carl Levin (MI), Jeff Merkley (OR), Harry Reid (NV), Jay Rockefeller (WV), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Jim Webb (VA), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) and Ron Wyden (OR). Burris, Dorgan and Feingold have been replaced by Republicans, so that leaves 17 pretty solid progressive populist votes. But Webb is not seeking re-election.

Twelve Dems voted populist on two of three: Michael Bennett (CO), Maria Cantwell (WA), Ted Kaufman (DE), Frank Lautenberg (NJ), Claire McCaskill (MO), Barbara Mikulski (MD), Patty Murray (WA), Bill Nelson (FL), Mark Pryor (AR), Debbie Stabenow (MI), Mark Udall (CO) and Tom Udall (NM). Kaufman has been replaced by Chris Coons, a Democrat who appears to be progressive but has not been tested yet.

Thirteen Dems voted populist on at least one amendment: Daniel Akaka (HI), Jeff Bingaman (NM), Kent Conrad (ND), Dianne Feinstein (CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Blanche Lincoln (AR), Robert Menendez (NJ), Jack Reed (RI), Charles Schumer (NY), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Arlen Specter (PA) and Jon Tester (MT). Lincoln and Specter have been replaced by Republicans.

So last year there were about 20 solid progressive populist votes in the Senate and about 25 senators who could be persuaded to vote populist. This year it is more like 17 solid progressive populists and possibly another two dozen who can be persuaded. They could use some reinforcements next year.

A populist agenda should start with Franklin Roosevelt’s Economic Bill of Rights, which he proposed Jan. 11, 1944. That would guarantee:

• Employment with a living wage;

• Freedom from unfair competition and monopolies;

• Decent housing;

• Medical care (Medicare for all);

• Qualify education from elementary school through college;

• Secure retirement for seniors.

In addition, the federal government should redeem Fannie Mae to take foreclosed houses and offer them to low-income home purchasers.

A constitutional amendment should be proposed to clarify that corporations are not persons who are eligible for civil rights.

Public financing for presidential and congressional races should be made available so that candidates need no longer accept bribes to finance their campaigns.

The US should withdraw from “free trade” deals with nations that do not enforce health and labor standards.

The Employee Free Choice Act, allowing unions to be certified if they collect signatures of a majority of employees, and forcing employers to enter binding arbitration with the union if they are unable to otherwise reach an agreement, should be passed.

Congress also must reform the tax code so that wealthy individuals and profitable corporations pay their share. Taxes should increase on people making more than $250,000 a year and they should be cut for families making less than $250,000.

The cap on income subject to the Social Security payroll tax — currently $106,800 — should be lifted, as the most equitable way to make sure the retirement program can pay all promised benefits through the 21st century.

This is only the beginning — but if we could get every Democratic candidate to agree with these popular items, it would go a long way toward restoring the good name of the Democratic Party among working people.

Progressive organizations that pursue populist agendas include Democracy for America, the national grassroots political organization founded by Howard Dean (democracyforamerica.com, phone 802-651-3200); MoveOn.org, which has separate organizations to educate and advocate for national issues as well as a political action committee to support progressive candidates; National People’s Action, a Chicago-based network of community organizations that unites people in cities, towns and rural communities in 14 states (npa-us.org, phone 312-243-3035); and Progressive Democrats of America, a grassroots group advocating broad public interest (pdamerica.org, phone 877-239-2093). Also see your local labor council and/or our Political Parties and Organizations links at populist.com/links.html/. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2011


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