Our Progressive Populism

Since our founding two decades ago, the Prospect has published many articles on the importance of pocketbook issues in restoring progressivism as this country's governing philosophy. During this period, jobs, earnings, pensions, health coverage, and ladders into the middle class have all become more precarious. Finance has become increasingly

influential on both parties and more dominant in the economy. Economically anxious voters, especially white men, have drifted right. The distress of ordinary people has only worsened with the current crisis.

The shorthand for these concerns was James Carville's famous sign, "It's the economy, stupid." The long-form analysis could be found in Stan Greenberg's articles in the early Prospect on winning back the working middle class, which influenced Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign. Since then, many of us have argued in these pages that distressed voters who are seduced by the right on social issues must be mobilized by progressives on economic ones.

This is a kind of class politics, but not one of facile slogans or easy scapegoats. It is hardly demagoguery to point out that concentrated wealth has too much political power. There is a class war, billionaire Warren Buffett once quipped, and my class is winning. That political imbalance must be overcome for economic balance to be restored. This fusion of political and governmental mobilization was Franklin Roosevelt's great achievement during our last economic collapse. If this narrative is not told forcefully by progressive leaders, with remedies to match, pocketbook anxieties go underground and are easy prey for true demagogues.

Progressive populism was partly vindicated in the 2006 election. After Democrats won Senate seats in such swing states as Ohio, Montana, and Virginia, running as pocketbook populists, our December 2006 issue was headlined "How Populism Wins," featuring articles by Harold Meyerson, Drew Westen, Ruy Teixeira, Jacob Hacker, and Barney Frank, among others. The cover depicted Sherrod Brown, a freshman senator who won more working-class Ohio counties than any recent Democratic statewide candidate.

Populism, however, comes in two varieties, progressive and reactionary. Right-wing populism is an ugly brew of know-nothing resentments -- of government, bankers, cosmopolitans, minorities and immigrants -- that nonetheless taps into genuine economic anxiety. Without effective progressive populism, the reactionary variety gains ground.

As represented by leaders like Roosevelt, Truman, Sherrod Brown, or Paul Wellstone, good populism rallies economically distressed voters to elect progressives who legislate structural reforms. In a crisis created by Wall Street excesses, a progressive populism is essential. Its absence helps explain the passivity of voters, the rise of Tea Parties, and the current weakness of the Obama presidency.

Our September issue included an article by Kevin Mattson titled "Forget Populism." This piece, unfortunately, conflates right-wing populism with the progressive brand, as if Sherrod Brown and Paul Wellstone were simply lefty variants on the demagoguery of Huey Long and Sarah Palin. Mattson contends that populism naturally belongs to the right, but only by leaving out our greatest progressive populist, Franklin Roosevelt, and misrepresenting his heirs.

Wellstone, a principled progressive and superb grassroots organizer, is dismissed as an opportunist who seemed populist because he had to run his campaign "on the cheap" and once had been a high school wrestler. Sherrod Brown is a phony because he went to Yale. Bernie Sanders, who carries downscale Vermont towns by landslide proportions, is disparaged as a son of "hippie" Burlington. Even poor Al Gore is trotted out as a failed populist. "Most populist techniques," Mattson declares, "smack of pandering." As opposed to what? Carrying water for K Street and Wall Street?

"Liberals," Mattson writes, "have to worry about more than rallying the masses around their collective anger. They have to worry about governing." Well, yes. What progressive populist ever argued otherwise? Didn't Roosevelt do both? Didn't Sanders do so as mayor of Burlington?

Buried among Mattson's straw men and false dichotomies is the germ of an important debate. With the right taking no prisoners, how do we restore civility? Given elite dominance of the agenda, what's the case for managerial technocracy versus a politics that includes class? How do we use politics to rebuild competent government? These are all good questions implicit in Mattson's article, but his broadside attack sheds scant useful light. His piece did draw several letters, which are extracted on pages 4-5.

Paul Krugman recently wrote of the power of Wall Street's "bond vigilantes" in setting a perverse austerity agenda despite a weakening economy. He concluded, "What will it take to break the hold of this cruel cult on the minds of the policy elite?" The answer, surely, is a politics that rallies regular people against the stranglehold of economic royalists -- a progressive populism.

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