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A better world is possible: strategies for a populist movement

Dedicated to Sylvia, who is not born yet and has no choice but to live in the world we have made for her until she begins to change it.

The end of lamentations
Under the title “Progressive Strategies in a Populist Moment”, The Nation (July 7-14) published a collection of articles written by ten leading progressive activists who talk about how “we can build power to effect real change, not simple fend off reactionary assaults.”

Given the relevance of the proposals and the different tone and discourse of the articles, a tone that leaves behind the semi-traditional “whining and sniveling” of the American left, this article aims to present our readers with a critical summary of the main economic, political, and ideological strategies proposed.

A populist moment or a moment of populism?
An accurate characterization of the political reality we intend to transform is essential to the success of any political project. In the introductory article to this issue of The Nation, “Stand Up and Fight”, Robert L. Borsage maintains that we live in a populist moment. Populism is a term that suffers from linguistic malleability, making it hard to define. Historically, it has been used and abused in American politics, like a multicolored quilt covering estranged bedfellows, such as the left wing agrarianism in the late 1800’s; the so-called Populist party (Progressive Party) of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912; the movement behind George Wallace’s presidential election in 1968; and the Populist Party of Willis Carto that was used to support the presidential campaign of KKK member turned Republican and then Democrat David Duke in 1984.

But Borsage is more interested in showing evidence of the growing ascendance of populist opinions in America than in defining the term. He points out how: “Poll after poll shows that broad majorities hold populist opinions—on investments, taxes and trade; on curbing Wall Street; on cleaning out Washington—that are far removed from those of the elites. Democratic pollsters now advise their clients to talk about working families, not the middle class, because more and more Americans don’t feel part of the latter.”

For Borsage, the Occupy Wall Street Movement, by unveiling the inequality affecting 99 percent of the population, opened new possibilities of organization and at the same time shifted the debate from issues of identity to issues of economics. Given the levels of social dissatisfaction in America, we indeed live in a populist moment, characterized by the growing awareness of the disparity between the interests of the people and those of the elites.

The indictment of the present and a moral vision of the future
According to the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, a well-known activist, founder of the Forward Together Moral Monday Movement, and President of the North Carolina NAACP, we find ourselves in a new era. Barber calls it the Third Reconstruction, characterized by the emergence of a growing indictment of the present that proclaims at the same time that “There is a better way, there is a moral law.” For Barber, there are essential rights that must be implemented in order to for us all to live better.

Rev. Barber argues that the specter of a new majority electorate haunts the dreams of the Southern Right, scaring “the daylights out of them.” This new electorate is interracial, intergenerational, anti-poverty, and pro-labor, and works to reform ballot laws. Its last successful appearance was during the Obama elections, first and second terms. Aware of the transformative potential of this electorate—Moral Monday rallied more than 80,000 interracial people to a protest in Raleigh, NC last February—he advocates for “A deeper language that gets into people’s souls and pulls them to a new place. Labor rights are not a left or right issue. Women’s rights are not left or right; education is not left or right; helping people when they are unemployed is not left or right. Those issues are the moral center of who we claim to be as people.

For him, political power will emanate out of the forging, throughout the Unites States, of a wide spread coalition of fusion politics along the lines of the new electorate. He invites us to “stop being a thermometer” or limiting ourselves to measuring social discontent, and concludes by posing a challenging question: “I want to know, are you ready to fight? God has given us everything we need; all we need to do is fight back and fight forward. And, if we do, our children will holler our name[s] because in the time of challenge, we did not give up.”

The power of labor
Very few people would dispute John Locke’s statement that all wealth in society is the product of labor. Among the left, even fewer would disagree with Noam Chomsky’s affirmation that Labor Unions are the leading force for democracy and progress. The new populist progressivism is equally aware of the power of labor but in the words of Sarita Gupta, the executive director of Jobs with Justice, we need new organizational models able to empower working men and women so “they can collectively demand the public policies and corporate practices that allow their families and communities to prosper.”

For Gupta, workers’ empowerment would take place through the creation of new forms of leverage, particularly beneficial for contingent workers who are “excluded from labor-law protections and bypassed by the labor movement.” According to Gupta, these domestic and guest workers are concentrated in retail, fast food, and restaurants; they are also care workers trapped in low-wage jobs. She proposes a “bad business fee” as a measure to be passed “at the city, county and state level across the county,” which would penalize and criminalize employer abuses such as low wages and reliance on tax-payer subsidized benefits for their workers. “The generated revenue would then be funneled directly to low-wage workers and communities.”

For David Roff, president of SEIU 775 NW, the fastest-growing union in the northwest, the establishment of new forms of labor struggle is also important. He notes, “collective bargaining can no longer achieve large-scale wins for the vast majority of workers. And as evidence accumulates that capitalism has not inherent mechanism to check the upward aggregation of wealth, we urgently need to find new ways to build power for workers.”

Taking into consideration that organized labor holds combined assets of over $34 billion, Roff proposes the allocation of small portions of this capital to “experimental initiatives that could produce massive results,” mirroring in some ways the mentality of Silicon Valley venture capitalists.

He also proposes what he calls a ‘labor incubator” which “would mobilize a wide range of partners and resources, develop and “prototype” for transforming work, replicate and scale up the projects with the most potential, and disseminate the results of our experiments throughout the movement.”

It’s global warming stupid!
No relevant contemporary populist strategy can ignore global warming and the devastating effects of sea level rise. For New Yorkers, the floods caused by Superstorm Sandy are still fresh in their memory. Mary Boeve, Executive Director of, notes that right after the floods, “a chorus of voices called on city government to rebuild for resilience against extreme weather and to help reduce climate change through energy-efficient buildings and stronger transit systems.”

Boeve acknowledges that this is, nevertheless, a relatively new phenomenon among environmentalists. She concurs with Naomi Klein, pointing out that current climate change research provides the evidence to back up economic populism. For Boeve, it is essential to disclose the destruction of the planet at the hands of big corporations and erode any moral credibility they may have. For her, in order to succeed: “Our movement cannot resemble what we are trying to oppose: centralized, slow-to-adapt oil and coal corporations and electric utilities. Environmental populism should be as decentralized as solar panels, with local organizations connecting to one another and relying on each others’ strengths to encourage a diversity of tactics.”

The modern American prince
Political transformations do not take place by osmosis or extrasensory perception. If these transformations are to take place, succeed, and persist, they need some form of reliable and efficient organization. This need is generally covered by the existence of political parties or organizations meant to carry on the class interests of their members and supporters. The political party becomes the “Modern Prince”—to borrow a term by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci—whose mission is to advance and install a new political hegemony in society.

Daniel Cantor, national director of the Working Families Party, an organization founded in 1998 and cemented on a broad class alliance of the middle class, the working class, and the poor. Their intention is to mirror and then surpass, with a left perspective, the lessons learned from the Tea Party. According to Cantor, “Working both inside and outside the Democratic Party, the WFP has tried to yank and pull and prod the democrats to the left. It’s the job of democrats to defeat republicans and it is our job to make sure they defeat them for the right reason[s] and the right people. Think Elizabeth Warren, Bill de Blasio, Keith Ellison, Jeff Merkely.”

Concerned with the importance of the right tactics, Cantor realizes that the WFP—as many other previous third party experiments—has to “walk the tight rope between independence and relevance, finding our way to the left wing.”

Leah Hunt-Hendrix & Max Berger (the former a writer and organizer for economic justice, and the latter a Citizen Engagement Lab Fellow) question the effectiveness of building “closed, hierarchical structures that can’t escalate (like unions that can’t go on strike), or generating wide-open horizontal mobilizations that fall apart quickly and don’t have a coherent strategy (like occupy Wall Street). For them, “organizers in this country must learn from the approach used by resistance movements in the Arab Spring and the earlier “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe, which succeeded in overthrowing authoritarian regimes by combining structure and mobilization in a hybrid model that could escalate militantly and had a plan to win.”

For them, politics and economics cannot be separated; more importantly, redistribution of wealth is insufficient since: Redistribution isn’t enough to secure equal rights, economic equality or environmental sustainability: we need economic democracy. Until we have democratic control over our banks, until workers and communities have a say in the way corporations operate, until we have community control over land, we will be forever fighting an uphill battle.

The articles in the July 7-14 issue of The Nation describe important political work happening now, across the U.S. This new progressive populism offers political optimism for the future in the form of doable strategies that undermine the power and greed of the elites and consolidate the power of the people: the middle class, the working class, and the poor of this nation.

Enrique Quintero, a political activist in Latin America during the 70’s, taught ESL and Second Language Acquisition in the Anchorage School District, and Spanish at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He currently lives and writes in Olympia.

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