January 29, 2010
Time for a Populist Revolt

One of the great pleasures of a new article by William Greider is his hopefulness. He still believes we can change the country into something we want it to be, something more like the original promises we made to ourselves at the founding, which we’ve never lived up to. Yet, Greider would probably add.

In the newest, “Political Fever”, he argues that the current discomfiture of the Democrats is a good thing in that it provides an opening for the people to pressure the government.

The Washington Post calls it a “populist brushfire,” and pundits explain why our sudden rowdiness is irrational, possibly dangerous if not swiftly contained. What a rare moment to behold — we’ve got their attention! Events that the major media see as illness are actually the first small signs of revival in our moribund democracy. The rebellions are like early tremors in what could be a deep shift in the tectonic plates of power. If so, the first waves are going to be followed by more waves — lots of them emanating from unexpected quarters — new voices and new ideas intruding on the exclusive parlor talk that passes for political dialogue.

I think Greider finds the whole spectacle fun and exciting because he’s identified with what a lifetime as a reporter has taught him is important to regular folks. He’s worked for the Post and Rolling Stone before his current gig as national affairs honcho for The Nation, and he knows Washington fairly well. But he hasn’t let familiarity kill hope, in part, I think, because he has a better sense of history than most politicians, or reporters for that matter. And he hasn’t identified his hopes and dreams with a particular political party, but with what his sense of history and his experience with people tell him are the big-picture trends.

Right now we’re buffeted by several of those, among them climate change, peak oil, and imperial overstretch. Politicians as a social class ignore these and others for as long as they can, since any viable solutions involve radical shifts in wealth and power from the current outrageously top-heavy structure.

But when a Republican in a pickup truck can take Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, you know it’s a moment at which we’ve got their attention.

This is where liberal-labor progressives can make a difference by exerting “tough love” on the Democratic Party. Do not be subtle about the electoral threat to comfortable incumbents. By refusing to fall into line and instead encouraging voters to talk back, activist groups can scare the bejesus out of Democrats (maybe even the president). People should demand, not beg, that Obama endorse the $154 billion jobs bill the House has already passed. Or blister Democratic senators who refuse to take up labor-law reforms needed to help workers organize. There is a long list of potential targets, if progressives are willing to assert themselves.

Usually, of course, Democrats in Washington do not take this sort of pressure seriously, and Obama’s White House has been dismissive of its liberal base, especially organized labor. Politicians can count, and they typically regard threats from left of center as toothless. But activists in Washington might change that if they reach out and develop alliances with the broad ranks of ordinary people across the country, including unorganized independents and renegade Republicans. Turn away from the policy culture of Washington. Instead, learn how to listen to everyday people, their concerns and aspirations — then learn to talk like them. The right does an ugly, fear-driven version of this. The left can speak for a more honest and optimistic vision of what Americans need. Mobilizing the anger is necessary to sustaining democracy.

We can take control of this country if we choose; the forms of democracy are still in place. The deck has been stacked against us, and the odds are long. But there are so many of us who recognize the actual need for real change, not just belief, that the question isn’t whether we could succeed, but whether we’ll put in the effort required. It’ll take democratic action; but as Greider says in Come Home, America, the easiest and least scary thing you can to do advance democracy is talk with the people around you about what’s going on. Generate conversation, get people thinking, even riled up. When enough people are angry, and willing to call their representatives to express that anger, the system will respond surprisingly quickly. Not necessarily efficiently, or even correctly at first. But it’ll respond, one way or another. As long as we can vote out the incumbents, we can scare them into doing what we want.

Henry Adams quoted a Cabinet member who was his superior responding to an Adams request for patience and tact in dealing with a Representative. The unnamed Cabinet member burst out: “You can’t use tact with a Congressman! A Congressman is a hog! You must take a stick and hit him on the snout!”

If we take up our political sticks, Congress will respond. This is not a faith thing, it’s an observation based on the desperation of members of Congress to hold onto that designation. Credibly threaten the Democrats with abandonment, in which case they’ll return to minority status, and see if they don’t respond.

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Posted by Chuck Dupree at January 29, 2010 02:56 AM
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