Classy Populism

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans   I’ve read a shelf of books about populism over the years from my heroes with the Texas Alliance to the embarrassment of Tom Watson’s racism in Georgia.  As an organizer, I thought there was plenty to learn, and I’ve appreciated the lessons buried in the books.  Only later in life did I learn about my own great-grandfather being elected to the Mississippi state legislature on the Populist line from Kosciusko or that one of my uncles was named after Tom Watson.  Classically, populism is about putting the people first.  How could I not wave that flag?

Well, Trump claiming the mantle and being given the franchise over the last four years, pretty much ruined the “brand,” as it would be called now, so that hasn’t made me happy.  Reading Ross Douthat, the conservative, but sharp as a tack, columnist for the New York Times today on lessons taught, but not necessarily learned over the last four years, was another cold shower coming from an unwanted direction.  His critique of what he calls “the left,” is worth examining:

Finally, on the left there were some attempts, via the Bernie Sanders movement, to build a left-wing politics responsive to the appeals of right-wing populism. But the gravitational pull of the cultural left was the stronger force, dragging Sanders away from his economics-first message, his skepticism of identity politics, toward a woke socialism that appealed to neither the white working class nor the African-American voters who ultimately made Joe Biden the Democratic nominee. And with Sanders’s defeat, the left turned decisively toward the easier opportunities afforded by its power in elite institutions and bureaucracies, in which class politics took second place to the promise of corporate H.R. departments assigning intersectional reading lists, forever.

Ok, of course in grappling with his points, you have to ignore the cheap shots and his own personal biases, but, remember, I said he was a conservative, so toughen up and see if there’s a lesson here, including in his warning about “elite institutions and bureaucracies.”

I think there are also lessons to be found in adopting a more powerful and pointed class-based appeal.  Embracing unionization is part of that, but more importantly it means trumpeting worker protections and workers’ rights even louder than the need for unionization, despite my own pro-union bias.   The evisceration of the Department of Labor, its regulations, and enforcement mechanisms under the current administration and its secretary, Antonio Scalia, where the toothless OSHA response to the pandemic is the poster child for this horror (see the recent New Yorker) is a case in point.  Fair taxation and dealing head on with inequality should be central platforms, even if it makes the big Demo-donors and Wall Street uncomfortable.  There are many ways to deal with racism, and a muscular program that deals with the workplace as central is key.  Language, arts, and culture are important, but they can’t push community and workplace down the list.

There are lessons from Trump-time that need to inform progressive strategy and tactics going forward, even if we don’t like where the advice might be coming from.