11/10/2014 02:54 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

Election Analysis: The Populist Alternative

Real populism is a politics of civic empowerment and deepening democracy. It weds strategies for challenging injustices and unaccountable power with programs of popular self-education and uplift, based on the premise that a commonwealth of freedom requires a commonwealth of citizens, to use the phrase of the 19-century African American poetess Frances Harper.

Populism of this kind is a sharp challenge to conventional views which see populism as "us versus them" demagoguery. It also differs from dominant liberal and conservative frameworks used to interpret the Republican advance in the recent election. Here are today's conventional views:

The liberal interpretation. George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist who has helped make the concept of "framing," processing information through mental models, well-known, repeated his liberal frame to explain Democratic defeats in a blog essay, "Democratic Strategies Lost Big." In his view, Democrats got lost in the weeds of particular issues and forgot the bigger storyline. For Lakoff, the Democratic message is that our collective empathy is expressed through government. "For progressives, empathy is at the center of the very idea of democracy... a governing system in which citizens care about their fellow citizens and work through their government to provide public resource for all. Private life depends on... public resources."

Though Lakoff professes to be a voice in the wilderness, in fact progressive Democrats have been following his advice for years. At the Democratic convention in 2012, many voiced Lakoff's views almost word for word, arguing that "government is the one thing we all belong to." As Barney Frank, the liberal congressman from Massachusetts put it, "There are things that a civilized society needs that we can only do when we do them together, and when we do them together that's called government."

The conservative interpretation. Yuval Levin, a prominent young Republican intellectual, skewered the Democrats during 2012 for exactly this "government-centered" view. He described its advocates as those who "would like to extend the web of federal benefits as far and wide as possible" and "make Americans dependent on government beneficence and the liberal politicians who bestow it." Levin also called for Republicans to reject go it alone individualism and remember their civic roots.

He proposed in the Weekly Standard, October 8, 2012, that conservative philosophy believes

What happens in the space between the individual and the government is vital... Local knowledge channeled by evolving social institutions -- from civic and fraternal groups to traditional religious establishments, to charitable enterprises and complex markets -- will make for better material outcomes and a better common life.

As Sam Tanenhaus described in the New York Times magazine last July 2, Republicans were listening. And according to the New York Times columnist David Brooks, Republican success in fact depended on remembering civic roots. "Republicans didn't establish this dominant position because they are unrepresentative outsiders," Brooks argued.

Republicans... re-established their party's traditional personality. The beau ideal of American Republicanism is the prudent business leader who is active in the community, active at church, and fervently devoted to national defense.

Populism, a politics of civic empowerment, shares with liberals a concern for justice and public resources. But it puts people -- not government -- at the center of the action, seeing government as a potentially empowering partner. It shares with conservatives a concern for "middle spaces" between individuals and government. But it sees these as potentially empowering civic sites, seedbeds for constructive social change.

As I argued previously in "Higher Education and the Politics of Free Spaces," it also emphasizes the transformative qualities of middle spaces when they become free spaces.

After the Civil War, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was an organizer among African Americans for the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). As Sara Evans and I describe in our book, Free Spaces, the WCTU used the phrase "do everything." WCTU civic activities, from homeless shelters and clinics to schools, clubs and self-help groups, generated a vast array of free spaces. In these women of diverse backgrounds developed confidence, public skills and public assertiveness, crucial foundations for the women's suffrage movement.

Harper drew on such experiences to argue that African Americans must organize themselves and develop themselves to complete the work of Reconstruction. She most certainly would have understood Dorothy Cotton's song, "We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For," expressing the spirit of the free spaces in the 1960s civil rights movement which shaped me as a young college student.

On April 14, 1875, Harper addressed the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. She issued a challenge to injustice:

Ladies and gentlemen: The great problem to be solved by the American people... is this: Whether or not there is strength enough in democracy, virtue enough in our civilization, and power enough in our religion to have mercy and deal justly with four millions of people but lately translated from the old oligarchy of slavery to the new commonwealth of freedom; and upon the right solution of this question depends in a large measure the future strength, progress and durability of our nation.

She wedded this challenge to a call for collective self-development:

The most important question before us colored people is not simply what the Democratic Party may do against us or the Republican Party do for us; but what are we going to do for ourselves? What shall we do toward developing our character, adding our quota to the civilization and strength of the country, diversifying our industry, and practicing those lordly virtues that conquer success and turn the world's dread laugh into admiring recognition?

Harper's vision of people-centered, empowering, educative politics infused the free spaces and the uplifting rhetoric which I experienced in the black freedom movement.

Once again, we urgently need such people's politics and the vision of a deeper, more vibrant democracy.