04/14/2015 11:00 am ET Updated Jun 14, 2015

Populism Is Helping to Define and Build the Progressive Movement

Bloomberg via Getty Images

While a self-serving and bought-off Conservative majority in Congress -- along with its DINO ("Democrat In Name, Only") enablers -- remains mired in the sludge of their own "agenda" of destructive and inane policy proposals, out in the world beyond D.C., activists and everyday folks are marshaling and growing a populist Progressive movement with teeth. Clearly it is the passionate and inspiring work from Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN 5) and others who are showing the nation what real leadership looks like, while helping to move forward a Progressive agenda that is already bringing to the national debate real issues of concern to the people of our nation.

Meanwhile, nowhere on this radar screen is the 114th Congress. We remain stuck in an economy that works just fine for the rich, but is an abject failure for the vast majority of hard-working Americans. The job increase reported for the month March was a tepid 126,000, most of which were low-paying jobs. Even so, we continue to see the unemployment rate hover around 5.5 percent, which itself may be a false number, as Senator Sanders tells us the real unemployment rate is actually 11 percent. Of course, no-one in the administration will corroborate that number or even admit that hard working folks are dancing as fast as they can just to keep their heads barely above water. Working people continue to lose ground, and hopes of seeing a rise in their income any time soon are almost non-existent, as is any hope of achieving a foothold in that elusive all but extinct middle class. Indeed, many have just plain given up on that aspiration.

And what of the next generation as we continue down this road? Will they fall in line and settle for the scraps being offered by corporatist America and the 1 percent, or will they be the catalyst for the political revolution that Bernie Sanders is calling for in his speeches across the country. Just last week, Bernie was in Chicago, Austin, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, speaking to overflowing crowds who came to hear his message of what must be done to revive our economy, which includes a major investment in rebuilding our infrastructure, which would generate 13 million jobs at a cost of $1.1 trillion. Also on his agenda is a call for the rich to pay their fair share in taxes, a raise in the minimum wage to a living wage, investment in education, an increase Social Security benefits - which continue to limp along at a payout increase of about 2 percent annually over the past five years. This amounts to an average benefit of about $14,000 per year, trapping so many of its recipients in poverty.

So when will enough be enough? Certainly Elizabeth Warren has been taking it right to the "banksters," who are now threatening to withhold campaign contributions from Democrats if she doesn't start playing nice. Of course, Wall Street's actual donations to the party are relatively small change, topping out at around $15,000 from each of the major banks per year, but it is in their lobbying where those big bucks come flowing in to buy off our elected officials and satisfy their special, self-serving interests, according to Warren. The budget proposed by the right-wing dominated Congress has all of the usual corporate giveaways, paid for by cuts to the GOP's usual targets, like Pell grants for students, children's healthcare, food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, women's healthcare, civil rights, the ACA and weakening the CFPB, opening the floodgates to more unbridled, speculative activities by the banks and investment firms, giving them free rein to continue engaging in risky derivative gambling that helped to sink the economy in '08-'09 - indeed, banks are already bigger and more powerful than they were prior to the economic collapse in '09; we must bring back a 21st Century version of Glass-Steagall, as proposed by Elizabeth Warren, which would regulate what kind of financial activities in which banks could and could not engage.

The list of crises in this country goes on and on. Student loan debt is now over $1.3 trillion, which is larger than any other kind of debt except mortgages. Indeed, The Nation Magazine has joined Warren and other Progressive organizations in calling for all student debt to be cancelled. This would, for one thing, free up all that money to help pump up the economy and provide some sense of financial stability for the next generation. It would also allow them to purchase necessities and even bigger ticket items like cars and homes, helping to return our nation to a thriving economic power -- remember those days?

Unfortunately, instead of innovations that actually help struggling Americans, Conservatives in Congress have offered us a draconian budget, calling for $5 trillion in cuts over ten years on services and benefits that will do nothing but harm working families and their communities. One of the most heartless aspects of this bill is to cut SNAP (food stamps) by $125 billion, which will throw 11 to 12 million people - mainly women, children, the disabled and the elderly - off of the program altogether, according to The Center on Budget Policy and Policy Priorities. Indeed, 69 percent of the cuts in the GOP House budget would come from programs helping low and moderate-income families. Countering this ugly assault on struggling families is the People's Budget, created by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which garnered 95 votes from Democrats recently - its most ever from Dems, which is an encouraging sign. This sensible plan offers positive solutions rather than destructive actions that undermine our economy and tear at the fabric of our society even further.

In her campaign for the Presidency, Hillary Clinton will be pushed to address national and international issues, but she will also have to come out strongly in response to this growing Progressive movement that is putting the real issues and needs of the country out there -- could they even help to move her a wee bit to the left? She will need a primary to push her to articulate exactly what she stands for as the front runner in the Democratic camp and where she will lead our country on national and international affairs. There is little doubt that Warren and Bernie won't let her off the hook, and both would be formidable challengers and bulldog opponents during debates. To date, Hillary has offered nothing of consequence about the state of our country, which is astonishing considering all that ails us. Instead, she has racked up huge speaking fees that only benefit her and her family. Bill Clinton also contributes substantially to the family fortune in that department. One has to wonder if "Clinton-fatigue" isn't going to become a widespread condition due to the same names continuing to pop up -- as they have for decades -- with the same worn out centrist politics that are, frankly, irrelevant in today's world.

There will be no free ride for Hillary in this election from either side, nor should there be. We should also keep an eye on those so-called "Progressive" non-profits who are pushing Warren to run, knowing full well she won't but still filling their coffers with donations to spend when they ultimately get behind Hillary. A refreshing alternative to these bait-and-switch tactics is the new PCCC campaign "Ready For Boldness" -- which 5,000 Democratic and Progressive leaders have signed on to -- will be directed at all Dems running for President, including Hillary, urging them to run on "Big and Bold" populist ideas. It is also time to hear from Hillary where she stands on the Trans-Pacific Partnership boondoggle, as well as fast-tracking its implementation, particularly since her husband gave us that disastrous NAFTA, which has cost us over one million US jobs, led to huge trade deficits, and has given birth to other disastrous trade deals like CAFTA and the Korean Trade Deal, which has itself cost us 50,000 jobs. All of these treaties, however, have been mere warm-ups for the TPP, and the outrage over this pending agreement has been growing by the day throughout the country. The secrecy surrounding the negotiations and the fact that it is being drafted by hundreds of lobbyists and special interests is particularly galling to anyone understands that this treaty is little more than a major sell-out to corporations that will reduce wages further and continue to ship jobs abroad -- which is just the tip of this iceberg on this odious deal. The President's role in working the phones to Congress to fast-track this abomination is particularly outrageous - this is a "change" that no-one except corporate fat cats like the Koch brothers wants, Mr. President.

And let us not forget that from her perch as Secretary of State, Hillary pushed fracking abroad and provided the expertise to those countries for this terrible and destructive practice. Of course, she's not alone in her fossil fuel addiction. Just last week we heard that the President wants to cut carbon emissions 28% over the next ten years -- a good start -- only to have him follow that up with his administration giving Shell approval to start drilling in the Arctic. This is embarrassing on a global scale.

Meanwhile, on April 15 the House will vote on repealing the estate tax, which only affects 0.2 percent of individuals worth more than $5.43 million each, while costing $270 billion in lost revenue over ten years. Bernie Sanders rightfully wants the estate tax increased for the wealthy, while also compelling them to pay their fair share in taxes on investment income. Another revenue increase would come from the Inclusive Prosperity Act (HR 1464, a/k/a the "Robin Hood Tax"), which, among other things, would charge 50 cents on every $100 of those risky speculative transactions Wall Street loves so much. We as retail shoppers pay more than that amount for our purchases, and such a tax could certainly help to plump up our national coffers.

People power continues to push major issues to the forefront, as it will on April 15 -- tax day -- when we will witness thousands of low wage workers in fast food, retail, airport services, healthcare and more taking to the street to fight for a living wage of $15 an hour and the right to join unions without facing repercussions on the job. In less than two years this has grown into a major movement, with thousands more Americans planning to show up and march with them in solidarity. At the birth of this movement, it was just a few hundred here in NYC, but now it has grown to thousands and has gone beyond just the fast food industry in one city. This is a global phenomenon and their voices are being heard.

And on April 18-20, there will be a gathering of some 1,000 activists in D.C. -- led by The Campaign for America's Future, National People's Action, US Action and Alliance for a Just Society -- at a summit entitled "Populism 2015: Building A Movement for People and the Planet." "We will release a bold populist agenda and forge strategies to challenge the limits of the national political debate while driving reforms at the state and local levels," says Robert Borosage, the co- Director of Campaign for America's Future. Speakers will include Rep. Keith Ellison, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, national radio commentator Jim Hightower and others, and featured topics will include "Moving Toward Victory with a Populist Agenda."

The outcry is increasing and the voices are getting louder. These are historic times and no one can afford to sit on the sidelines any longer. Our issues and needs are too great, and if our members of Congress don't want to represent our interests, we must mobilize and ensure they are voted out of office and replaced by those who will. There can be no other way.

With Jonathan Stone