ESSAY, by Sen. Russell Feingold
Who you callin' a Populist, buddy?
About a month ago, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh was on the
air, talking about Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan.
Limbaugh was criticizing Buchanan's protectionist ideas on foreign trade,
when, according to press reports, he said, "That's why I've said Buchanan
has abandoned conservatism on this issue and has become a populist, manipulating
the fears of the people who think that this is the solution to the problem.''
Apparently, calling Pat Buchanan "a populist'' ignited a firestorm
of protest from Limbaugh's audience. The telephone lines to Limbaugh's program
started running hot as callers denounced Limbaugh's remark. One woman reportedly
went so far as to call the talk show host "a hypocrite.''
What, one could well ask, is going on here? What, in particular, has become
In its broadest sense, populism is a set of political values that strongly
identify with the needs and concerns of the average citizen. It's obvious
that a lot of different interpretations can fit under so large an umbrella,
which is probably why people as disparate as David Duke and Jesse Jackson
have been referred to as "populists.''
The populist tradition has deep American roots, some of which are entwined
with the Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Progressives, in a sense, took their cue from the mandate of our Constitution
to create a better society by establishing justice and promoting the general
welfare. The fight then was against the concentration of political and economic
power in big business, the existence of corrupt political machines and the
disenfranchisement of farmers and industrial workers. Of course, Senator
Robert M. LaFollette Sr. of Wisconsin was a leading figure among progressives,
and I am part of his progressive legacy.
Part of that legacy is "the Wisconsin idea,'' the marshaling of the
resources of government, business, academia and citizens' groups to come
up with solutions to social and economic challenges.
Progressive populism offers optimism and reform. A bedrock progressive
belief is that people have the capacity to make change.
They would reject the concept that economic hardships or social ills are
immutable conditions of a world that is incurably unfair. Ideas like an
eight-hour workday, a minimum wage, pure food laws, workers' compensation,
direct elections and improved public education were widely disseminated
through the progressive vision.
The essential difference between progressive populism and the alternative
offered by some on the Right is, I think, the difference between optimism
and pessimism. What you might call regressive populists work the furrows
of fear and anger. Their message is one of alarm, a cry that the barbarians
are at the gates, come to steal jobs, property, money, a way of life. The
progressive populist, on the other hand, presents a positive vision of a
just society that is ours to create. It is inclusive, compassionate and
Let me outline some of the elements I believe are fundamental to a modern
progressive political agenda:
Populism has both bright and dark sides. People can be stirred to seek justice
or merely revenge. It is the responsibility of progressives to take the
initiative by offering hope, not through mere promises but through practical
- Fiscal reform - We need to trim government spending responsibly, without
exempting a single department, as was done with the Defense Department this
year. We must also review and reform our system of tax loopholes, which
amount to a $400 billion annual expenditure. I am a co-sponsor of bipartisan
legislation to do just that and to modify or eliminate a dozen forms of
- Health care reform - We must push for comprehensive reform. The goal
should be universal coverage. I personally favor a single-payer system.
My immediate priority is reform of our long-term care system and reduction
of Medicaid costs by establishing consumer-oriented and consumer-directed
services that allow those needing care to remain in their own homes and
communities with their families and friends.
- Government reform - We must promote democracy and make government accountable
to the American people. We should curb the special access and influence
of powerful interests in Washington. We enacted some reforms last year to
curb the influence of gift-giving lobbyists, and now, a bipartisan group
of Senators, of which I am a member, is pressing for reform of our system
of funding Congressional campaigns.
- Promotion of economic justice - We must defend the right of workers
to organize and bargain collectively. We must raise the miminum wage. We
must insist that the workplace be safe and free of discrimination.
- Promotion of social justice - We must battle racism, bigotry, poverty,
hunger, homelessness and ignorance. We should promote protection of the
environment, support for education and the maintenance of programs that
help those in need while not being bound to a particular method of achieving
We should be mindful of an observation Bobby Kennedy made during the 1968
presidential campaign. "We all share each other's fortunes,'' he said.
"Where one of us prospers, all of us prosper; and where one of us falters,
so do we all. The task of any new leadership will be to rally the diverse
forces within America to the common effort all of us require.''
U.S. Sen. Russell Feingold is a Democrat from Wisconsin.
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