Populism: what is it and where can it be found?
Mass movements don’t just appear out of the fog, fully grown, structured and mobilized. They emerge in fits and starts of populism over many years, just as the American Revolution did, and as did the Populists’ original idea of a “cooperative commonwealth.”
A successful people’s movement has to take the long view, to learn about itself as it builds, nurture the culture of its people, take chances, create fun for all involved, adapt to failures and successes, stay steadfast to its principles, have a stoic tenacity — and organize, organize, organize. A little serendipity helps, too, so grab it when you can.
In 2011 a serendipitous moment for the cause of populism rumbled across our land, though later it was widely (and wrongly) dismissed as a failure. That September, hundreds of young people, loosely aligned with an upstart group called Occupy Wall Street, took over Zuccotti Park in New York City and audaciously camped out on the front stoop of the elite banksters who’d crashed our economy. Occupy’s depiction of the 1-percent vs. the 99-percent struck a chord with the unemployed, underemployed, and the knocked-down middle class. Occupy encampments quickly sprang up in some 200 cities and towns from coast to coast.
The uprising was ridiculed (even by many progressive groups) as naive, undisciplined and “not serious.” Who’s in charge? Where’s their strategic plan? Why don’t they have position papers? All this carping about Occupy failing to produce the usual trappings of a Washington-focused interest group missed two essential points the young people were making: (1) such trappings are not producing any change, and (2) we’re not an interest group, we’re a rebellion.
Rebellion has to come first. As it builds, structure and process will follow in due time. The great strength of Occupy is that it was a genuine, non-institutional, social, non-wonkish, morally compelling, and spontaneous stand against the culture of inequality that the moneyed powers are imposing. It touched people in deeper ways than issue politics will ever do. And the great achievement of Occupy is that it prompted a cultural shift that turned Wall Street’s barons into social pariahs and put the issue of inequality directly at the center of our nation’s political debate. We are the 99 percent.
To find populism flowering today, take a road trip across any stretch of America, or take a gander around your community. You will find a splendid array of ordinary folks rebelling against the bosses, bankers, big shots and bastards who dare subjugate us to their greed, including:
- Mad-as-hellers in dozens of states, often in isolated rural areas, now form an increasingly effective guerrilla network to combat the massive invasion by global oil and gas giants to frack our land. Last November, three Colorado cities beat back Big Oil’s money and the lies of some of their own political officials in a vote to ban fracking in their areas. New York State and more than 100 other cities have imposed moratoria or bans on this corporate plundering.
- Putting a specific face on Occupy’s theme of gross economic inequality, a nationwide revolt of exploited fast-food workers erupted last summer, gaining the high ground against McDonald’s and other poverty-wage profiteers. While Washington sticks to the miserly federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, grassroots campaigns are elevating state and local minimums to $10 an hour and above. Last month, with much pressure from the outside agitators, President Obama signed an executive order, which says the minimum wage for federal contract workers is $10.10 an hour.
- Two huge corporate/government cabals — the sovereignty-sucking Trans-Pacific Partnership and the NSA’s secret, Orwellian program of spying on every American – are coming unraveled, thanks to public outrage that has united a left-right coalition in Congress. Meanwhile, the crucial populist struggle to salvage our democracy from the Supreme Court’s scurrilous Citizens United edict, quietly continues to gain ground with 16 states and over 200 local jurisdictions passing proposals in support of a constitutional repeal of the Court’s ruling.
There’s so much more underway, such as placing a Robin Hood tax on Wall Street speculators; a surge in co-ops as a democratic alternative to corporate control; getting Monsanto’s genetically altered organisms out of our food supply; a vibrant and positive campaign by immigrants themselves for immigrant rights; battling giants such as Disney World and Walmart to win paid sick leave days for low-wage workers; freeing college students from Wall Street’s loan sharks. All of these and so many more are the sprouting seeds of a widespread, flourishing Populism movement. The moment is ripe to bond them into something larger.