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Richard (RJ) Eskow Headshot

Look Out, Wall Street, the New Populism Is Coming

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WALL STREET
Garry Gay via Getty Images

Even as the Campaign for America's Future prepares for its May conference on the New Populism, attacks on populism keep coming from all directions. One of the latest salvos to be publicized comes in the form of an anecdote about Bill Clinton. As Tim Geithner told Andrew Ross Sorkin, Clinton sarcastically told the Wall Street-friendly Treasury Secretary how to "pursue a more populist strategy":

"You could take Lloyd Blankfein into a dark alley," Clinton said, "and slit his throat, and it would satisfy them for about two days. Then the blood lust would rise again."

Clinton was always effective at belittling people with whom he disagrees -- even when, as in this case, his own position is morally indefensible. The president and his economic team deregulated Wall Street to disastrous effect, then became very wealthy there after leaving office.

The "them" in Clinton's quote is us. And the only people who confuse a cry for justice with "blood lust" are those who have become too close to the unjust.

It is precisely this sort of sneering insider indifference to public opinion -- not to mention good governance and fair play -- which has given rise to today's populist mood. And make no mistake about it: the public's mood, despite years of attempts by most Republicans and many Democrats to placate them, is distinctly populist. And much of that populist sentiment is directed toward the financial institutions which have so badly damaged our economy.

The fear triggered in some circles by a figure like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (who is the keynote speaker at the New Populism) conference is based, not on concerns about "blood lust," but on an understanding of the politics involved. Washington insiders can protect Wall Street -- and themselves -- only so long as nobody represents the majority on the political stage. Once a populist alternative appears, like that represented by Sen. Warren and like-minded politicians, this "bipartisan" tilt toward bankers becomes much harder to maintain.

Why? Because these populist leaders aren't just proposing the right policies toward Wall Street. They're also offering very popular policies, policies with much deeper and broader support than those of the Clinton, Bush, or Obama administrations. Polling results compiled in CAF's PopulistMajority.org website show, for example, that

  • More than half of those polled last month think the problems with banks which led to the 2008 financial crisis haven't been fixed (to a large extent, they're right);
  • Two-thirds of those polled believe that Wall Street financial institutions make it harder to find good jobs in the United States than was true in the past (again, there's a lot of truth to that, given the increasing share of national profits being captured by the nonproductive financial sector);
  • Two-thirds believe there should be more government oversight of financial institutions such as banks and credit card companies;
  • More than nine out of 10 people polled believe it is important to regulate financial services in order to ensure fairness toward customers;
  • 80 percent of those polled supported the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) after learning about Wall Street's role in the economic crisis of 2008;
  • 83 percent believe that new rules should be implemented for Wall Street, and that bankers should be held accountable for the actions which caused the financial crisis.

Most Americans are equally disturbed by the Wall Street- and billionaire-friendly economy which government policies have forged. Nearly 8 out of 10 Americans polled last month, for example, believe inequality is a problem - and more than half think it's a major problem. Two-thirds of those polled in March believe it's important for the government to implement policies that reduce inequality. 71 percent think the government believes it's more important to help major corporations than to help the poor.

What's more, Americans correctly perceive that bankers broke the law and got away with it -- that, in fact, they were bailed out rather than punished. A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted last September showed that only 15 percent of the public agreed that "The government has sufficiently prosecuted bankers for their role in the financial crisis," while more than half disagreed with that statement.

These populist trends are powerful enough to capture the attention of many politicians, including some Republicans. Public opinion, and presumably the free-market side of the conservative spectrum, have led several Republican politicians to take surprisingly populist positions on Wall Street issues. Last year, for example, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter joined with Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown (who is also speaking at the conference) to introduce a bill which takes aim at "too big to fail" banks. And earlier this year Republican Rep. Dave Camp proposed a bank asset tax designed to offset the market advantage held by large financial institutions.

But most of the populist financial action is taking place on the Democratic side of the aisle, perhaps to the consternation of the party's Clinton/Obama wing. Sen. Warren's brilliant campaign against Wall Street's political privileges has been reinforced by proposals like Sen. Brown's and has received the enthusiastic backing of independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

(Sen. Sanders and several key congressional progressive leaders, including Representatives Keith Ellison and Jan Schakowsky, will also be speaking at the conference.)

These legislators cannot force the Department of Justice to pursue lawbreaking bankers. But if enough of them come together, they can pass legislation to protect our economy. And, perhaps even more importantly, they can use their Congressional exposure to shift the political debate.

Insiders may scoff, but populist views of Wall Street aren't driven by "blood lust" -- or any other kind of lust. They're driven by love -- love of justice, love of fair play, love of democracy, love of country. And that's giving rise to something which is already afflicting the comfortable and challenging the powerful.

Call it "the New Populism."