Progressive Populists: Stand up and Fight

Populism survived the right-wing radio preachments of Father Coughlin in the 1930s and '40s; it survived the Cold War diversions of Joe McCarthy in the 1950s; and it survived George Wallace and the southern white backlash in the late 1960s and '70s. And Populism will survive into the 21st century, notwithstanding pretenders such as Pat Buchanan and the Christian Coalition and the disdain of the establishment press, because Populism is deeply ingrained in the American character as a progressive force for democracy. But Progressive Populists must make their stand.

Buchanan at least got the rich folks' attention for a few weeks in February and March. Republican leaders had to scramble to rally the troops behind Bob Dole, the bagman for the Business Roundtable. The natives were rounded up and driven back into their compound at the country club, but not before an exasperated Rush Limbaugh was moved to scold his unruly audience: "I'll tell you something, you are being manipulated in a way I find very bothersome," he said. "Pat Buchanan is not a conservative. He's a populist."

The classical definition of a populist is a person claiming to represent the common people, an advocate of agrarian and working-class interests and an opponent of monopolies. Often populism is confused with demagoguery and xenophobia (the fear of foreigners); possibly that is where Limbaugh was confused. Buchanan is less a populist than a demagogue who thinks the cure for rapacious corporations is to seal our borders from immigration. (Limbaugh, on the other hand, is a demagogue who thinks that rapacious corporations are not a problem.)

When Buchanan criticizes corporations that put profits ahead of their workers' benefits, he is taking a populist stand. When he criticizes free-trade agreements that allow corporations to move jobs overseas, and when he opposes immigration, he is taking half a populist stand.

Bruce Krug, a dairy farmer from northern New York, noted that Buchanan touched a raw nerve when he criticized corporations, and the Establishment's response was telling. "When you look at social issues, there's not a paper's width of difference between Buchanan and Dole. It's only when he stands up for blue-collar guys that they call him an extremist."

Progressives have alternatives for fair trade; see Joel Joseph's "Free Trade Bill of Rights" on page 9 of this issue of the Progressive Populist. Without labor's right to organize, those "free trade" agreements simply promote the export of jobs to low-wage countries, where workers usually are cowed into submission by repressive regimes. Without reciprocal assurances that our trading "partners" will honor labor rights, as well as human rights and environmental standards, those "free trade" agreements are worthless. They only empower multinational corporations to whipsaw American workers and reduce the standard of living in the United States.

Remember, as Hal Crowther does on page 21, that Buchanan got his break as a hack in the Nixon-Agnew administration, where he was one of the architects of the Republican strategy to realign the South by exploiting the white backlash against civil rights and voting rights legislation. That policy, cynical but effective, is still paying dividends for the GOP. The Southern Bourbons simply switched their party affiliation from D to R and encouraged the prejudice, as they have since the Civil War, that every gain for blacks comes at the expense of working-class whites.

How far is Buchanan from real populism? No one ever heard him propose more taxes on the rich and their capital gains. By the time, late in the primary season, that Buchanan embraced the moribund bill to prohibit the permanent replacement of strikers, Dole already had the Republican nomination all but locked up. The plutocrats were setting back into their overstuffed chairs. For a review of the history of populism and phony populism, see the article by Harry C. Boyte and Nancy N. Kari on page 10.

During Buchanan's surge, the establishment press briefly paid attention to working-class issues. The New York Times ran a week-long series on hard times hitting the middle class, Business Week editorialized about "The Backlash Against Business," Newsweek's Feb. 26 cover story was on "The Corporate Killers," and editorialists everywhere seemed to discover that big corporations were hurting large numbers of middle and working-class people. As Ward Morehouse of the Program on Corporations, Laws and Democracy said, "The Times even felt the need to remind corporate leaders that the United States is a democracy, not just an economy.'"

Corporation critic Richard Grossman has nothing good to say about Buchanan. "I think he's a total menace," said Grossman, co-director of the Program for Corporations, Law and Democracy. In his view, Buchanan's only value is ironic, in showing "timid fools" in the Democratic party that they can strike a chord with populist issues. "If we're lucky it's a precursor to a real populist movement," he said.

These populist pretenders are not addressing the real problem in Grossman's view: the nature of corporations and the need for people to take power away from corporations. "Labor Secretary Robert Reich wants to give them more incentives to act nice. We're trying to redefine the question to make it possible to focus on the real problem, and that is the nature of corporations."

Some 3,500 people showed up March 7-10 for a Public Interest Environmental Law Conference in Eugene, Ore., to discuss ways to control corporations, including revoking corporate charters and reversing judicial decisions that granted corporations the rights of personhood and "managerial prerogative."

"I have tremendous hope," Grossman said. "It has been 100 years since folks have actually gone after the corporate jugular and tried to end corporate power. I think corporations are much more vulnerable than they would have you believe. It's bringing together dairy farmers, conservatives, libertarians and progressives and they all are concerned that their lives are in alien hands." (To contact the Program, call 508-487-3151.)

Peter Kellman, an organizer with the Maine chapter of the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy as well as the "Wicked Good" 2nd Maine Militia, said a recent demonstration in the state capital, Augusta, Maine, drew people who ranged from the radical environmental group Earth First! to Buchanan supporters.

"I think he's tapping into something the Left has missed," Kellman said of Buchanan. Kellman, a former union activist, sees the growing hegemony of corporations since 1978, when Congress passed the Humphrey-Hawkins bill for full employment. Ever since then, the Federal Reserve Board has ignored the law in setting interest rates and corporations have been consolidating their power while the standard of living for workers has dropped.

Now, with the end of the cold war, Kellman said, "It's a classic time for realignment. The question is whether progressives are prepared to act. As a populist, it's clear to me that the question is not about capitalism vs. communism. It's about the concentration of wealth and power. Our culture revolves around us as consumers. Buchanan comes around and says the problem is corporations, but he doesn't really address the problems of corporations. He recognizes something is wrong but he doesn't say what to do about it."

The 2nd Maine Militia was organized in December by working-class novelist Carolyn Chute for working-class gun owners who don't hate but want to control corporations and kick them out of political life. Its second meeting in February drew 150 people. "They were a broad-based group that showed a wide range of people share the same concerns about corporations dominating our culture," Kellman said.

"Our hope is that we've backed off doing things at a state or national level and instead we've got people working locally. Most organizations I've seen, whether they're environmental or public interest organizations like Common Cause, their attitude is that whoever donates money is a member but very few people make decisions. We're trying to go back and rework those kinds of organizations based on the needs of local groups."

He added that the trend toward mobile franchises in professional sports, where owners expect fans to support them until they find a more lucrative deal elsewhere, also has helped to show people what corporations stand for. Cleveland is the latest city where residents have found that consistent support for their football team is not enough to prevent an owner from abruptly pulling up stakes and moving down the road. "One place it can't happen is in Green Bay because the people own the team," he said.

So what are the prospects for a progressive populist movement? John Kinsman, a Wisconsin dairy farmer and the national president of Family Farm Defenders, said many farmers were attracted to Buchanan -- Kinsman found himself agreeing with much of what Buchanan was saying. Progressive populists have to take back that rhetoric.

"He is good, like many right-wingers, at using the down-home language that (farmers) relate to. This is something the Left and the Democrats don't even try to do. He knows all the buttons to push. At least on the surface he says that corporations are bad, and GATT and NAFTA are bad and free trade is going to destroy us ... and that's true. But they think that the enemy is illegal aliens and they blame welfare and labor unions for their troubles."

Still, Buchanan is speaking their language. "The Democrats or the populist people aren't listening to rural, small-town people. For the others, the only farm policy is international trade."

He added that "progressive" groups don't make any headway in the Heartland when they denounce right-wing Christian groups. Many people perceive those denouncements as an attack on all religious values, particularly when they hear the right-wing party line on radio talk shows all day.

"Progressive populists need to speak their language and get that message out. People are looking for a decent living. They know that the food they're buying is not as good as it should be, but they can't afford anything else. They're working in unsafe factories in small towns and all farmers are forced to take jobs in town just to keep their farms."

When Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1988, Kinsman said, "I saw some people who were just one generation removed from the Klan who were voting for Jackson because he speaks our language. And these are diehard Republicans."

Farmers need the support of the urban and suburban middle class, but Kinsman said, "You can't move the middle class out of their comfort zone until they feel the pain in some way. And we have to move the middle class out of their comfort zone.

"If we can reach the urban people, that's where the hope is. Farmers have fought so long that they don't see any hope. Urban people have to realize that if the family farmers die out and the corporate farms take over, they won't have the choices on price or type or the amount of food that is available. ...

"I am confident that if we can get a dialog going between the farmers and the consumers, that we're in it together, that we can work together, but the farmers have been made to believe that the consumers are the enemy. The Farm Bureau has been especially bad about getting that message out."

For more on farm issues, see Merle Hansen's essay.

No organization is better able to mount a counterattack against the corporations than the trade unions. Even in its diminished state, organized labor has 15 million members and the rededication of the new AFL-CIO leadership toward organizing drives is welcome.

There also is a serious attempt to organize a Labor Party. Tony Mazzochi, special assistant to the president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union, has spent several years organizing the Labor Party Advocates. The effort has the support of unions representing more than 1 million members. The advocates will hold a founding convention for a Labor Party June 6-9 in Cleveland. [For information, call 202-234-5194]

Mazzochi sees a possible coalition between farmers and labor. "Just as workers are losing jobs because of multinational industries moving overseas, small farmers are being booted off the land by the concentration of agribusiness. It's not like it used to be when there were millions and millions on the land, but we work with farm workers and family farm groups."

Buchanan's appeal to the working class is no surprise to progressive union leaders. "We've been warning for years that unless there's a progressive alternative, somebody like him [Buchanan] would come along with populist rhetoric and fascist undertones."

Union members are undeniably alienated, he said. "We've done a lot of polling - I ran a poll of our members in 1989, when I was secretary-treasurer of OCAW, that found 55 percent thought the Republicans and the Democrats both represented corporate interests and 55 percent thought we ought to explore a new party."

Labor Party Advocates aim to set an agenda in 1996 rather than run candidates. "I'm amazed that people define politics as running candidates. You need a movement before you run candidates," he said. "We're building a party that will be able to articulate a vision of what America should be.

"I see the purpose of the party to educate people. The centrality of their concern is economics and if we're able to convince them that we represent their interest on economic issues, the other issues are going to be addressed later on. ...

"People have to organize within their own constituency. They have to make themselves aware of economics. There's got to be a coherent program that addresses all these concerns and then you mobilize people around it. But you can't lecture people. They've got to understand it's in their best interest. But we're organizing the working class and we're not afraid to talk about class. We're down and they're up and we've got to shake it up and address those concerns."

Steve Cobble, a New Mexico political strategist with the Rainbow Coalition, compared Buchanan to a doctor who arrives at the correct diagnoses of the problem - the lack of good jobs - but then prescribes poison to deal with it - banning immigration and attacking affirmative action. He cited Jesse Jackson's imagery of an airplane that can take off even though it is loaded with baggage. "Buchanan's message was strong enough to lift his baggage."

Cobble said the Rainbow Coalition's top priority is taking back the U.S. House of Representatives and replacing Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House. "In order to stop the right-wing tidal wave it is important to take back the House before the Republican majority becomes institutionalized," Cobble said. (Call the Rainbow Coalition at 202-728-1180.)

There is hope in the fact that Bill Clinton has resuscitated his re-election hopes by defending Medicare, school loans, education funding and the environment, Cobble said. "These are not New Democrat programs," he said, referring to the Democratic Leadership Council, which has embraced a more conservative agenda, "and the press has been surprised to see that people like those programs."

Cobble's hope is that Bill Clinton, a student of history, will try to make his mark in a second term. "He knows how you get in the history books and that is by instituting broad-based programs that help people." In any event, he predicted, "You'll hear more talk about the minimum wage, Medicare, student loans and programs that help average people." Of course, we heard that in his first campaign, too.

Larry Goodwyn, the Duke University historian who is perhaps the foremost authority on the agrarian populist movement, is dismissive of most attempts to organize a populist movement around a figure or a theme. "Popular politics cannot happen in this country by people making nice speeches and even people writing good articles," he said. "Popular politics can only happen when popular bases are organized, which is what the Christian Coalition has done. And which [progressives] have not done. How to do this is not part of growing up liberal. We do not learn how to do this by reading approved publications. Nothing is going to come of attempts to build democratic politics in this country until progressives understand that politics is organizing. And they don't want to do it and they don't understand it and it's central."

One of those who is trying to organize locally is Ronnie Dugger, who sparked the populist Alliance with his "Call for Hope and Action" in the August 14, 1995, issue of The Nation.

"I think it's premature for the Alliance to seek publicity ... but I think our hand is forced by Buchanan. Populism certainly deserves a bad name when it is associated with many of the things that Buchanan stands for, and of course he is no populist. He is a protectionist who is associated deeply enough with the right-wing conservatives in the country that he is independent of the corporate establishment ... On the other hand he is opposed to the minimum wage; he is for the 'right to work' law. That is no friend of the working people. That is an enemy of the working people.

"Basically, I am representing to my colleagues that we should have a founding convention, perhaps the week before the Democratic Convention in Chicago, in order to advance this 21st-century populism to contrast with Buchanan's nativist populism; in other words to inform the country that an alternative is organizing."

The founding convention would promulgate a statement of principles as well as issues and priorities. "The premise here is that the issues are not the issue, the system is the issue ..." Like Grossman, he believes "we need to take on the corporate oligarchy." (Contact the Alliance at 617-491-4221)

Bill Clinton so far has not shown a taste for taking on corporations. He has not even supported Labor Secretary Robert Reich's proposal to give corporations incentives to act responsibly. But the possibility of a Ralph Nader presidential campaign on the Green ballot in California, Maine and several other states will give voters an alternative if the Democrats take progressive populists for granted. The National Independent Politics Summit also is working to put together a slate of local independent candidates who share progressive principles. The platform will be finalized at a conference in Atlanta, Ga., April 12-14. For information, call 718-624-7807.

--Jim Cullen

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