Noam Scheiber was out with a great new piece last week contrasting Elizabeth Warren’s political message and priorities with New York City Mayor’s Bill de Blasio, where he described Warren’s populism as the “anti-government left”, an intriguing phrase- while I generally agree with the article, as I relate below, I would frame things differently.
Also out was a thoughtful new article in The Democratic Strategist by Andrew Levison on how a successful populist strategy requires more than just economic issues.
A series of big events in the last couple of years has prompted a lot of discussion in Democratic circles and the media about the new wave of populism that is building: Obama using Bain-bashing populism to win re-election in a tough economy, Warren’s victory in 2012, the election of Tammy Baldwin in WI, the re-election of Sherrod Brown in Ohio, the election of de Blasio and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, the emergence of Warren as a powerful new iconic leader for progressives, and the going down in flames of Larry Summers as a potential Fed Chair nominee.
As someone who has been a progressive populist my entire career, and who believes it can be a winning political formula in purple and even red states as well as blue ones, this is an exciting time, and I do believe this may become our moment if our movement creates a successful message and strategy. But the challenges that have kept progressive populists from winning Presidential elections and creating a lasting majority movement are still there, and those of us who want to pursue this path need to be aware of them and have a strategy for dealing with them. This article lays out the challenges I think we have to overcome, and a strategy for doing so.
Let me say at the outset that I call this article "Winning Warren-Style" not because she is necessarily following all of the strategy I lay out below. She is setting her own course, and while I respect her and am inspired by the kind of politics she is pursuing, the ideas in this piece are the course I believe we should follow, not the course I think she is following. However, because Warren is inspiring a new generation of progressive populist activism, and creating an iconic brand and a way of framing issues that is fresh and exciting, I think Warren has already become the leader of a new kind of modern populism that will grow into a bigger movement.
But before discussing that new movement, let’s go back and look at the history of the last half-century. It was 50 years ago that the New Deal era reached its pinnacle of political power and success, when LBJ won his overwhelming landslide victory in 1964. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were constructing a politics that had great potential for uniting working class whites and blacks into a powerful political coalition. But 1964 would be the last time a full-throated progressive populist on economic issues won the Presidency. The Vietnam war broke apart the progressive coalition, and King and Kennedy were dead by assassins’ bullets 4 years later. Even though plenty of populists have won big competitive races in purple states many times since then, and even though populists have tended to way out-perform the amount of money that have raised in presidential politics, there are some deeply entrenched reasons as to why Democratic populists (as opposed to the faux-populists in the Republican party) have failed to win national elections in that time.
Here are the four biggest barriers to a populist progressive President and Congress:
- The money thing. Let’s start with the most obvious point, which is the fact that big money special interests don’t like progressive populists, and those big money types have a huge sway over the political process. It’s not just that they don’t give to populists, and do give a huge amount to their opponents, historically meaning that the kind of candidates people like me support are way outspent. That is just one part of the distortion that big money makes in our political system. There is also the huge influence, and control through actual ownership or advertising dollars, that big money corporate interests plays with the journalistic coverage of the campaign. And there is the fact to which I can directly attest to from years of conversations on campaigns, which is that Democrats a great many times distort, mute, and muffle a populist message- even if it polls well, which is usually does- because of fears about not being able to raise enough money from the business interests if they are too open in their populism.
I would add another note here as well. One of the problems the entire Democratic party has suffered from since the 1970s is that the power of big money has made the party, even in the years we controlled both Congress and the Presidency, look weak or worse policy-wise in terms of actually delivering tangible benefits for working families. We couldn’t pass labor law reform or health care in the 1970s, but we did deregulate a bunch of industries (like oil companies, airlines, trucking) and let them run roughshod over people. We couldn’t pass health care reform in the 1990s but we did pass NAFTA and banking deregulation, things that ended up badly hurting the economic standing of most Americans. When we did pass health care reform and financial reform in 2010, that was good, but we made enough compromises that seriously weakened those bills’ ability to help make tangible improvements for most Americans, lessening in a big way the political credit we could have gotten for the legislation.
- The race and poverty thing. As Stan Greenberg found in his seminal research into the attitudes of white working class voters in suburban Detroit in the 1980s, Republicans had been very successful at convincing those kind of voters that when Democrats talked about economic fairness, who they really cared about were poor and black people. (Now we can add Hispanic immigrants to the mix.) The infamous GOP “Southern strategy” worked for a long time in the industrial Midwest too. This dynamic is still around, although it is fading somewhat as our nation’s demographics change, but it is still a big thing Democrats have to deal with, because we can’t build a long term national majority without a significant share of the white working class vote.
- The business thing. Working class voters, which tend to be the bulk of swing voters in national elections, have a very complicated set of mixed emotions about business. They don’t like the businesses that exploit their workers, out-source jobs, pay huge CEO salaries, and care only about their enormous profits, But they also know that businesses are the source of badly needed jobs, and they don’t want to hurt the ability of businesses to create and maintain those jobs. Thus, if populist Democrats seem like they are too anti-business, or that they are too angry at business abuses to be able to help those businesses create more jobs, it makes those voters nervous.
- 4. The government thing. The biggest obstacle to progressives winning elections is the widespread and deeply felt belief by most voters that government is wasteful, incompetent, and corrupt. This idea has been successfully and incessantly repeated for 50 years by the Republican party and conservative movement, and certainly (and ironically) reinforced by Republicans when they were in charge of government because they ran things so badly. If progressives are perceived to be the “pro-government” candidate, as they will tend to be given the vehement rhetorical hatred of government by the modern Republican party, it does create a very big barrier to winning elections.
As I indicated above, some of the sting of these 4 big obstacles is lessening over time. The same demographic changes that helped a Democrat like Barack Obama win the Presidency will help more genuinely populist progressive do the same. And with young people growing up in the worst economic times, with the worst economic inequality, since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the are going to be a lot more open to really transformative economic changes that progressives would want to make. But all 4 of these problems remain as real and significant barriers to true progressive populist winning either at the presidential level, or adding dramatically to their numbers in Congress. So the question is: how do we build a populism that can overcome these imposing barriers?
Here’s the formula that can win over the long term:
- Dealing directly and honestly with the problems in government. I think Scheiber frames things wrongly: it’s not that the Warren-style progressivism is anti-government. But it isn’t automatically pro-government either. What populist progressives are saying is that we care less about defending and promoting government at all costs than about fighting over whose side is government going to be on: the big wealthy entrenched powers that be, or the everyday Americans who are trying to give their families a decent life and a better future- the people who, in Bill Clinton’s classic phrase “work hard and play by the rules”. What we want is to lessen the power and corruption of big money in the political system so that the rest of us have chance at, as Warren likes to put it, a level playing field. We acknowledge that there is waste in government spending, but assert that the waste comes far more from well-connected federal contractors and big money lobbyists cutting sweetheart deals than it does from some poor or middle income person getting something they don’t deserve from government. We believe that there needs to be a regulatory cop on the beat, but know all too well that it is easy for regulators to be bought off by the big businesses they oversee, so we know that the regulators need oversight as well.
- Being pro-small business and pro-entrepreneurialism by taking on monopolies and oligarchies. As Barry Lynn demonstrates in his brilliant book Cornered, the dominant problem in the modern American economy is the near-monopoly capitalism that has taken over industry after industry. We saw the disastrous impact of this as the Too Big To Fail financial sector wrecked the world economy in the economic panic of 2008-9, when the super-inflated housing bubble collapsed. We shed millions of jobs in a matter of months, saw housing prices drop 60-80% in market after market around the country, and saw wages drop dramatically and stay flat or worse ever since. Meanwhile, the TBTF banks got bailed out and bankers still got record bonuses and profits in the years after the bailout. But even outside banking, 1 or 2 companies dominate dozens of major sectors of the economy, creating huge economic distortions and a variety of potential crisis points in industry after industry, and making it far tougher for new businesses to be started or to make it when they are.
A pro-small business, pro-entrepreneurism, anti-big business populism is good policy and even better politics. If we make as one of our cornerstone parts of our economic platform the championing of small business as they compete with the biggest businesses, that goes a long way to overcoming the third barrier to populist success I discussed above. Americans have a very high regard for small business in general- it is arguably the most respected institution in our society. Progressives should be their strong and consistent champion.
- Contrasting community with cruelty. As long as times stay tough for working class Americans, as long as we have the kind of economic disparities we have in this country, right wing populism is the progressive movement’s greatest threat. With this kind of economy, which unfortunately I think we will see some version of for years to come, it is a lot easier for the right wing to push this idea of a dysfunctional government and liberal elites not caring about regular people’s lives. But as the other side’s rhetoric and policies gets more and more cruel, our version of progressive populism needs to provide a contrast. If all we are is angry, we will not be able to show the American people how much different and better we are than the right. We have to reject the cruelty of the right wing, because cruelty has no place in the kind of America we are trying to build. Instead we should be preaching about an American community where we respect each other and look out for each other, and give each other a helping hand when someone is in trouble. Our kind of populism is willing to take on the powers that be that are destroying the American community, but our rhetoric should not only be or even mainly be angry: it should be infused with an optimism about the kind of country we are hoping to rebuild.
This is where we should look back to King and Bobby Kennedy. They believed whole-heartedly in economic populism, and spoke eloquently about it, but at the heart of their narrative was a story about an inter-connected American community where respect for everyone’s human dignity was at the center of our national identity. I think an emphasis on an American community that looks out for all of us also gives us a chance to talk about progressive institutions that are part of civil society. This version of progressivism doesn't rely on government to take care of everything: we believe in organizing labor unions, consumer watchdog groups, community organizations, food co-ops, online groups, and other civic institutions that fight the good fight to make society a better place. And we use the marketplace to reward the businesses who are good corporate citizens and punish those who pollute, exploit their workers, or otherwise abuse us. Government has an important role in this view of the world, but is not the only thing progressives want to rely on in terms of improving the lives of our families and fellow citizens.
A populism that does all these things, combined with the demographic and generational changes that are trending our way, can build a strong and long term national majority. We have to confront the problems with our government directly- the corruption because of big money special interests, and the waste and dysfunction caused by that corruption. We have to become the champion of the small businesses that are trying to compete with the massive companies that dominate their sectors of the economy. We have to promote an optimistic vision of American community and build progressive institutions that will fight the good fight for all of us, contrasting our vision of America with the cruelty from the other side. And we have to always ask politicians the question: which side are they on- the 99% or the the wealthiest and most powerful at the very top of the economic pyramid?
I believe that this kind of populism in combination with shifting demographics go a very long way toward solving the 3 obstacles to progressive populism winning at the national level. The money thing remains but in fact Elizabeth Warren’s 2012 campaign demonstrated that we have a come a long way toward solving that problem, as her combination of online contributions and excited contributions from progressives all over the country meant that she outraised a corporate backed incumbent with a huge fundraising head start on her. The other side will always have more money overall, but a candidate with a strong populist message can now compete in terms of campaign money far more than in the past.
So what does a new populist moment and movement, capable of winning national elections, mean for the 2016 Presidential race? It is very hard to know how it will play out- I keep reminding people who haven’t been through as many Presidential races as I have that presidential politics is very unpredictable. I absolutely take Warren at her word that she isn’t going to make a presidential run, and it may be that Hillary has an easier time against not much opposition for the nomination. But I strongly suspect that even if Hillary’s path to being the Democratic nominee is relatively easy, that because the electorate has changed and gotten more populist, that a politician as smart her will too, and that we will see the emergence- like we did at the end of the 2008 nomination fight- of a very populist Hillary. And if she becomes President, I believe a more aggressively populist version of progressivism will be able to do better at holding her accountable than they have with Obama these last several years. In the meantime, I think this populist moment is going to see more and more Warren-style candidates at all levels that emerge, excite people, and get elected.
This country has had 2 major progressive populist moments in its history- around the turn of the last century and the New Deal era. If us populists play things right, we might be on the verge of getting a 3rd. We can do it if our movement is smart, and keeps faithfully to our central mission: fighting the powers that be.