The Promise (and Peril) of the New Populism

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With results in from Iowa and New Hampshire, the early part of the American primary season leading to the 2016 Presidential election demonstrates that populism is on the rise in both the Republican and Democratic parties. This should probably come as no surprise, the phenomenon has waxed and waned in western politics from at least the time of Savonarola  On the American left, populism has been linked to Progressivism in the country’s politics since the Gilded Age, an era with numerous parallels to our own.

US politicians from Teddy Roosevelt to Henry Wallace wore the label and, although some had notable achievements, most were limited by the prejudices and thoroughly discredited pseudoscientific theories of their times. Less flawed were writers and journalists like Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois and Upton Sinclair who drove change by bringing issues of inequality, racism, child labor and the rights of workers forcefully into the public consciousness. These “muckrakers” deserve to be remembered as much as any politician for the long term achievements of the early 20th-century Progressive movement.

Much of the actual Progressive Party’s 1912 platform still resonates today. Under the heading, “Corrupt Practices”, it states: “We pledge our party to legislation that will compel strict limitation of all campaign contributions and expenditures, and detailed publicity of both before as well as after primaries and elections.” Although more than a century has passed since this radical proposal, the Supreme Court‘s 2010 “Citizens United” decision brought an end to any progress made in containing the corrupting influence of money on US politics in the years since.

In more recent US history, populism, if not always “Progressivism”, a term that fell out of favor until recently, has most often been represented by third party Presidential candidates like Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000. While generally seen as election spoilers by mainstream commentators, the issues that motivated them were usually absorbed by one of the two major parties. Perot’s calls for deficit reduction have become Republican orthodoxy, although notably absent are the more radical parts of his platform, like cutting military spending, which might make this easier to accomplish.

In Nader’s case, in the years since his run, mainstream pundits sympathetic to the establishment within the Democratic Party have promoted the idea that voters must give up on their ideals and engage in “lesser evil” voting to prevent Republican victories. They do this by insisting that his Green Party run caused Democratic candidate Al Gore’s loss that year. In reality, Gore probably won the 2000 election by a small margin but a right-wing, activist Supreme Court handed victory to GW Bush.

To its credit, Occupy Wallstreet, a more recent example of leftwing populism, refused to be coopted by the Democratic Party and associated groups. Its simple message of 99% of the population opposed to a plutocratic 1% quickly spread internationally. In the UK and here in Canada there were huge encampments that shared similar complaints and goals, often in communication with other activists across borders.

Although hardly recognized by the media, Occupy is probably one of the reasons that Bernie Sanders emerged as such a formidable candidate in the US Presidential elections five years later. Just because the occupiers went home doesn’t mean they stopped organizing and it appears that many who participated in the movement have joined Sanders’ populist campaign for the Democratic nomination.

Left Progressive Populism and Right Nativism Against Politics As Usual

Populism can be dangerous when embraced by the right because it usually comes mixed with nativism. Even before the refugee crisis began in Europe last year, such forces were gaining ground in Greece (Golden Dawn), France (Front National), Germany (Pegida) and the UK (UKIP), among others. In Hungary and Ukraine, similar extremists are actually in positions of authority. The xenophobic aspects of the Trump candidacy, while unique in some ways, are by no means a purely American phenomenon.

At the same time, the rise of the populists on both the left and right in the developed economies of the west shows that majorities in most are turning away from the neo-liberal economic theories and interventionist foreign policies establishment politicians peddle. It’s telling that the ultimate such figure, Hilary Clinton, proudly proclaims the support of Henry Kissinger, a war criminal in the opinion of many people, to criticize her opponent Bernie Sanders on foreign policy.

The attacks on Sanders, both from the Clinton camp and the media have been mild up until now compared to those on the almost accidental populist, Jeremy Corbyn, a longtime leftist who won leadership of the Labor Party after their disastrous showing in the last UK election. He and his supporters have been smeared as terrorist sympathizers by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron for voting against airstrikes in Syria. One General even threatened a military coup if Corbyn were to take power.

Expect the attacks to continue and intensify against not only Bernie Sanders but Corbyn in the UK and groups like Podemos in Spain as these new left populists get closer to wielding real power. There are few things that elites aren’t prepared to do in multiple countries to maintain the status quo. If you don’t believe this to be true, just ask the Greeks.

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