10/02/2006 08:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Rise of the Populist Democrats

The Wall Street Journal's page 1 article today begins by saying "Many Democratic politicians, shrugging off lessons of recent political history, see this as the year when the widening gap between the rich and the rest of America will help win them votes." The piece then quotes the standard fare of Washington insiders saying it's supposedly a terrible, awful, suicidal idea for Democrats to discuss the increasingly back-breaking economic squeeze Americans are feeling and to fight the hostile takeover of our government by Big Money interests. Only until you get to the 11th paragraph does the piece entirely contradict its claim about "lessons of recent political history" as it flippantly notes "The one recent Democratic candidate to tap economic angst most successfully was Bill Clinton - he talked often in the 1992 campaign about how well the top 1% were doing while others were falling behind."

So, according to the Wall Street Journal "recent political history" should teach Democrats not to talk about economic inequality and populist themes, except that yes, the only Democrat to unseat a Republican president in the last quarter century talked specifically about that issue with those themes. Of course, it is true - corporate front groups like the Democratic Leadership Council have spent many years distorting history, claiming Clinton never ran as a populist, and in fact ran as a mushy "centrist." But let me quote my own article in the American Prospect in addressing this fallacy:

Historical revisionists will claim that the centrist Clinton's ascension in the 1990s directly refutes the electoral potency of class-based populism. But Clinton's 1992 campaign was not the free-trade, Republican-lite corporate shilling that many propose as a Democratic panacea. It was, by contrast, populist on all fronts. "I expect the jetsetters and featherbedders of corporate America to know that if you sell your companies and your workers and your country down the river, you'll be called on the carpet," candidate Clinton promised in 1991. On trade, it was the same. "I wouldn't have done what [George Bush Senior] did and give all those trade preferences to China ... ," he said. "I'd be for [NAFTA] but only -- only -- if [Mexico] lifted their wage rates and their labor standards and they cleaned up their environment so we could both go up together instead of being dragged down."

Yes, Clinton went on to break some of these pledges - but he won office by RUNNING on those themes, which is what many others are now doing, causing serious heartburn among Washington's elite pundit and political class. You can see these themes in campaign ads in all different parts of the country: From Georgia, to Ohio, to Vermont, to New York, to Connecticut candidates are finally tapping into Americans very real anger at a political system that has proven time and again it doesn't care about ordinary citizens' economic interests.

Don't be fooled - the candidates who are pushing this message are in an uphill fight. Anytime you run for office and have the guts to take on the economic powers that be, you are not only going to be targeted for criticism by angry, power-worshipping Washington pundits like David Brooks and David Broder, but you are going to be attacked with huge amounts of money from the interests that want to preserve the status quo. And when some of these populist candidates lose as some of them might, the media and political establishment is going to be right there trumpeting their loss as proof that yes, they were right - Americans really aren't interested in their government representing their economic interests.

Regardless of this propaganda, however, what we have here is the very real beginnings of a serious movement. The fact that so many Democrats are running on these themes today (and have run on them in the recent past and won red districts) is a major step forward - these candidates are reacting to what they are seeing and hearing in their districts, and it is clear that more and more Americans are getting tired of the Washington Beltway telling them that stagnating wages, slashed pensions, job outsourcing and general economic devastation is A.O.K. It isn't - and over the next few years, this movement to change things is only going to get stronger.