There is a lot of talk in Democratic party circles about populism (which among Democrats is generally of a more progressive nature) vs centrism. All three terms — progressive, populism, and centrism — are thrown around way too loosely by pundits who rarely know what they are talking about. For some, it all boils down to the differences (stylistically as well as substantively) between Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren. For others, it is a debate about whether Democrats should talk about growth or inequality — a recent report from Benenson Strategy Group and SKDKnickerbocker ominously warned that swing voters want the focus to be on growth rather than inequality. Some pundits talk about whether Democrats should be pro-business or more for income distribution.
Even though I happily identify myself as a proud populist progressive, I think these kinds of pundit-driven definitions don’t do much to build a winning message or agenda for either Democrats or the progressive movement. I think we need a populism that doesn’t just repeat old formulas but answers voters’ real concerns about progressive policies. Here’s what I think a winning populist progressive program entails:
1. Fairness leads to growth. I am so tired of polls asking people to choose between economic fairness and growth. These two things are the furthest thing from being opposites — in fact, there is a great deal of economic research and analysis that documents the exact opposite conclusion. The economy grows faster when most workers are getting raises and have more disposable income. The wealthiest 1 percent are more likely to hoard their money, or speculate with it in trades, than to actually invest it in something that creates good jobs. And when the wealthy pay more in taxes and government invests more in human capital, infrastructure, and R&D, the economy tends to boom. Note that the three most prosperous decades in American history — the 1950s, 1960s, and 1990s — were when taxes on the wealthy were high, or had just been raised, and major investments were being made in public goods.
2. Don’t talk to voters about income inequality. I know I am a progressive and am supposed to be in favor of talking about inequality, and I don’t mind hearing about in academic circles or high level wonkfest forums in DC. But I have bottom line rule when it comes to talking to voters: don’t ever talk to them using words they would rarely use. When I knock on doors or hang out in bars and cafes back home in the Midwest, I never hear people talk about income inequality. I hear them talk about how they haven’t gotten a wage increase in years, whereas the company they work for seems to be making a lot of money; I hear them say they don’t know how to make ends meet; I hear them bitch about wealthy special-interest lobbyists getting sweetheart deals, and how the rich keep getting richer and no one else seems to have any money; I hear them talk about the way big businesses screws regular folk; how ridiculous the prices being charged for the most simple health care procedures; and how Wall Street banks are too big and have no morals. But the phrase income inequality never comes up, and that is not how we political folks should be framing these issues either.
3. Being for small business, innovation, entrepreneurialism, and fair competition are progressive values. In our language and our policies, progressives should embrace all of those things. We are for the corner retailer making a good living, without having to worry that Walmart will crush them. We are for innovators being able to compete in a fair marketplace, without bigger competitors being able to corner the market. We are for small family farms being able to compete successfully with bigger agribusiness, and for them not having to kowtow to the big meatpackers and food industry giants. We are for small community banks lending to local businesses without their mega-competitors on Wall Street being subsidized by the federal government. We want fair regulations to level the playing field for the small guys, and we want the Anti-Trust division at DOJ to start enforcing the law again so that small businesses and start-ups have a chance.
4. We believe that long-term deficits matter and waste in government should be eliminated. There are plenty of ways to reduce waste in government and the federal deficit both. Weak safeguards on government contracting waste probably a hundred billion a year, according to studies by groups on both the left and the right. Billions of dollars in farm subsidies to highly profitable agribusiness giants are wasted every year. Programs like the Export-Import bank and Commerce Department trade junkets waste more billions in subsidies to highly profitable corporations. Big, mega-profitable oil and coal companies get billions in subsidies every year. And the military budget hasn’t had a decent audit in decades and wastes huge amounts of money on weapons programs that aren’t needed and don’t work, military bases that have no strategic use anymore, and luxury perks for generals that are outrageous by any standard. Then there is the tax side of things: closing corporate tax loopholes and raising taxes for the wealthy would do an enormous amount to cut the deficit.
5. We are not pro-government. We want government to be on the side everyday folks. Chuck Schumer is as wrong about his pro-government message as he is about Credit Default Swaps- we should not be pro-government, we should be for a government that is on the side of the 99%. Let’s be honest: government does a lot bad stuff. As referenced above, government should be a lot smaller when it comes to wasteful Pentagon spending and military intervention into countries where we usually make things worse, big corporate farm subsidies, NSA spycraft, CIA torture, police brutality, subsidies for coal and oil and nuclear power, overseas junkets for big business CEOs, wasteful no-bid/no-penalty for overrun contracts, and a host of other things. Government needs to stop being on the side of Wall Street, and needs to start prosecuting them for the serious crimes they commit. I don’t want a bigger government, and I’m not all that interested in defending government in general. What I hunger for is a government that is fighting like a demon for everyday folk instead of the big money guys. I want a government that helps senior citizens through Social Security and Medicare, and helps poor children through Head Start, public education, and school lunches. I want a government that takes on big businesses who are trying manipulate markets, squeeze out their smaller competitors, and screws consumers.
I have never seen the progressive movement as all about promoting government. Organizing unions, launching boycotts, holding corporations accountable and hurting their brands when they do wrong, starting a hundred thousand local immigrant legal/social services and domestic violence orgs, creating Alinsky-style community orgs that hold both businesses and local government accountable — it’s all a part of progressive organizing and none of it is about a bigger government, only a more responsive one to the needs of the people. But where more government makes sense — a bigger regulatory stick against big business, more schools, more Social Security and health care benefits, safer roads and bridges? Hell, yes, we need more government.
Progressive populists have the ability to have a clear, strong economic agenda and message that appeals to and inspires both the Democratic base and working and middle class folks who are swing voters. We should not let pundits and DC centrists pigeonhole us into language and beliefs that we don’t have. We should tell our story about a movement that is about taking the country back from the big money special interests and putting it on the side of the rest of us.