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A Modern Progressive Populist Platform

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With voters angry at the establishment and incumbents in general, and deals in particular, Democrats who are defenders of the established order are working overtime to beat down the idea of winning elections by using scary populism. Using faulty historical analogies, polls with carefully designed questions in order to elicit certain answers, and the specter of far-right anti-intellectualism as reasons not to be populist, they fear what might happen if Democrats actually start listening to real voters and make the changes people were promised in 2008.

The good news is that if the Democrats running for office in this tough, tough year will respond to the anti-establishment anger that is out there and ride it, they can do better than anyone is currently predicting. Of course, if that happened, it would be a very bad thing for corporate Democrats who don't want anything to change, because it would prove the lie that the only way for Democrats to win is to kow-tow to special interest power and conventional wisdom.

We've had pundits like Matt Bai take on populism in this way, and groups like Third Way do it as well. The latest article I have seen comes from a self-described liberal named Kevin Mattson writing in The American Prospect. Mattson's idea of a modern day populism is Sarah Palin, and if you accept that premise, it's easy to see why he dislikes a populist message. He makes arguments unsupported by any polling numbers or actual knowledge of political dynamics, such as: "Since the 1960s, populism has succeeded in the right and produced few if any left-wing counterparts... There is no way to steer that boat back to left-wing shores." He dismisses "recent attempts to paint Harry Truman as a raging populist" (apparently forgetting Truman's 1948 stump speech: "These Republican gluttons of privilege... want a return of the Wall Street economic dictatorship... ").

He talks about Gore's fatal mistake of populism, conveniently forgetting that after Gore's People vs. The Powerful convention speech, he shot ahead in the polls in that race (only losing his lead after he performed badly in the debates). He ignores the fact that Clinton's winning 1992 election message was even more populist than Gore's in 2000.

However, my point here is not to argue the history of populism's political success or promise -- I have done that here and here in case you want to check those arguments out. What I want to focus on today is a progressive populist platform that wins politically in our currently political environment.

Mattson's most irritating tendency is to throw out sentences like: "Populism -- because it glorifies the 'common sense' of the people -- is prone to the sloppy, slapdash thinking of figures like Palin" and "Too often the advice to adopt populist rhetoric becomes advice to pander" and "Populism's simplicity is its central fault." The disdain of Bai, Mattson and Third Way for progressive populism is evident in these kinds of sentences and strained historical argument. But a platform and message that does actually take on big corporate elites and an entrenched establishment does not have to wallow in simplicity, pandering and proud stupidity the way Palin-style right-wing populism does.

Anger alone does not win elections for progressives, but righteous anger combined with accurate analysis and policies that take on the corruption of wealthy elites certainly can. The way populism wins is to be angry at what the elites have done to this country and smart about how to fix it all at the same time. Here is a winning progressive populist platform for the 21st century.

1. Making government work for the people, not the powerful. Our mission should not be to defend government, because government has screwed up a lot of the time, especially when corporate special interests control it as they have on most issues since the 1980s. Our mission instead is to wrest government from the clutches of the corporate interests who are feeding at the trough and turn government into something that can effectively serve and help middle- and lower-income Americans. There are all kinds of things about government that really are wasteful and don't work -- let's not be afraid to name them:

  • Government contracting is as corrupt and inefficient as anything in American life. The federal budget currently has about $750 billion worth of contracts, and various groups have estimated we could save at least $100 billion worth of that a year (and probably a lot more) if we cleaned up the contracting process. Way too many contracts are no-bid contracts; way too many go to a few big companies like Halliburton who have cheated American taxpayers over and over and never seem to get penalized. Cost overruns are rarely punished, and businesses built into most contracts are a scandal.

  • While I give President Obama some credit for taking on some of the most egregiously wasteful military projects, the entire defense budget hasn't been subjected to serious scrutiny in at least three decades. There is enough land and waste in there to give us hundreds of billions of dollars worth of savings without even questioning the War in Afghanistan or the troops still in Iraq. And think how much we could save over the next decade if there was a serious endgame strategy.

  • Corporations have captured far too many agencies in the federal government. We know now that the horror of the Gulf spill was caused directly by the failure of regulatory agencies in bed with the oil industry; we know that the financial meltdown was caused by the combination of Wall Street greed with regulatory agencies that looked the other way; we know that the anti-trust division of the Department of Justice has done nothing about the concentration of wealth and power in finance, health insurance, energy, and a host of other industries; we know the Department of Commerce and Office of the US Trade Representative spend most of their time helping big businesses with trade deals that haven't benefited American workers very much -- and now we see our government has even subsidized outsourcing.

  • Government can and should create mechanisms to compete with and/or better bargain with big companies. A public option in health care and bargaining with drug companies over their prices were two huge ways to drive down health care costs, which we sadly chose to reject in the recent health care plan. Both would have saved tens of billions of taxpayer dollars.

  • Big agribusiness companies have come to dominate our farm subsidy programs and have gotten far more federal dollars than struggling family farmers. You could probably cut 70% of our farm subsidies without ever nicking the first medium-sized family farmer.

  • The number of tax loopholes and special provisions for big business in the federal tax code is also in the hundreds of billions of dollars a year, all stuck into tax bills thanks to corporate lobbyists. Provisions like the loophole on carried interest and the loophole that benefits foreign investment over American jobs that progressive populist Democrats have tried to reform this year are major examples of this, but the coalition of 100% lockstep Republicans and Third Way Democrats keep winning the day on these issues.

Progressive populists are not pro-government; we are in favor of a government independent enough of big special interests to work well, and strong enough to oversee big business effectively.

2. Collective action is as important as an effective government. I have always found it funny that even as conservatives hate government, they also hate private actions that hold big business accountable and provide another kind of check on its power. Labor unions, community organizing, class action lawsuits, blogging and netroots organizing, consumer boycotts are all mocked and attacked by the free market worshippers, even though they are private citizens banding together to get things done.

Progressive populists know that we can't rely on government alone to check corporate power. Working together and organizing collectively are key components in providing a way to keep big business from being too powerful. We need stronger labor unions, and policies to make collective bargaining easier, like the Employee Free Choice Act; we need to make it easier for lawyers, stockholders, and consumers to file class action lawsuits against corporate fraud and malfeasance; we should be investing more in community organizing and legal services for the poor like we did in the 60s and 70s. Progressive foundations and donors need to invest in a vibrant blogosphere and a strong consumer movement to keep pushing back against oligarchical corporations with way too much power.

3. Investing in people and a bottom up economic structure is the best way to grow the economy. Conservatives' only solution on the economy, no matter what the problem and what the evidence, is to lower taxes on the wealthy and cut back on regulations that safeguard us from companies who put profits above everything, including their workers, the environment, safe products, and the overall economy. Progressive populists know that we have to invest in regular people to help lift them up.

We need world class schools. We need a health system where everyone is covered and preventative medicine helps keep us healthier. We need more money for Head Start, school lunches, and early childhood health and nutrition to help lift the poorest children so that they have a good chance to make it. We need big investments in our massively underfunded physical infrastructure, roads, bridges, schools, highways. We need to make sure every American has access to the highest quality high-speed internet service.

We also need for the federal government to actually have a jobs strategy, an industrial policy that helps nurture the industries of the future, like solar and wind power. Every other industrialized country has this kind of policy, and our future is being cannibalized because we don't. Our trade deficit is a bigger long-term economic problem then the federal deficit, but because it benefits certain big special interests, we continue to avoid doing anything about it.

We can't afford to have long-term unemployment at the level it's been since 2008. We have to start investing in our people and our economy.

4. We are pro-business, but against oligarchy. Progressive populists believe in supporting and investing in entrepreneurship, small business, and the manufacturing jobs of tomorrow. The only kind of businesses we are against are overgrown oligarchies who are big enough to stifle competition, distort the marketplace for their own greed, and get special breaks from the government.

We expect businesses to live by the social contract and give back to the country that made it possible for them to do well by treating their workers and communities decently, not polluting the environment and paying a fair share of taxes. Progressive populism is better for business and the economy than the concentrations of wealth and power that have wreaked havoc in the financial, energy, telecom, and health care sectors. We believe in:

  • investing in the infrastructure that can help businesses grow

  • opening up government contracting so more companies, including small business, has a chance to get them

  • investing in quality public education so workers will be well-educated and trained for the workforce

  • investing in research and development to help the businesses of the future prosper

  • having an array of small business technical assistance and loan programs so that entrepreneurs can create healthy new businesses

  • preserving competition through rigorous anti-trust enforcement

5. We need to throw the moneychangers out of the temple. One of the reasons that I am so enthusiastically working with the MoveOn.org campaign to clean up corporate corruption in Washington is that our government and democracy cannot function effectively with the current system we have for campaign finance, special interests lobbying, and corporate money going into elections. A small group of big corporations in a few key sectors of our economy have come to dominate our federal government's decision-making in legislative, executive, and regulatory policy. Defense and security contractors, health insurers, pharmaceutical companies, agribusiness, energy conglomerates, and Wall Street have concentrated more political power in fewer hands than at any time in our nation's history, with the possible exception of the era of the robber barons. For the sake of our economy and our democracy, we need to break the inseparable link between big, corporate interests and our government. We need tough lobbying reform, public financing for campaigns, and we need to overturn the Citizens United decision.

Although as far as I know this is not true of Mattson, the anti-populist crowd in the Democratic Party tend to be financially and socially aligned with the corporate special interests -- but they have one other thing in common with them: they are mostly not understanding how much economic pain the massive recession is causing to the American middle class. Real unemployment -- after you count discouraged workers, along with temporary and part-time workers not by choice -- is closer to 20% than 10%, and wages, incomes, and home prices are flat or worse, while the cost of essential items like groceries, gas, insurance, and college tuition have continued to go up too rapidly in price. The anger that is out there at both parties and elites of all stripes is real and palpable, and it is not going away anytime soon. The underlying fundamentals of this economy for middle income people have been badly damaged by the 2008 financial collapse, and the throw-the-bums-out mood that caused the 2006 and 2008 wave elections is still in force. The only thing that's changed is the perception of who the bums are.

If the Democrats don't understand that anger, and respond to it with passionate politics and strong ideas for how to change things, we will lose not only in 2010, but in 2012 as well. A smart, tough-minded populism that is willing to take on the D.C. establishment that is in bed with the special-interest lobbyists is the only thing that will save the Democrats politically, and it is also a political platform that can rebuild our country again.

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