Front-Porch Politics: Everyone Wants Populist Reforms

A People’s Action report highlights universal desire for real populist reform.

If you despair that a mysterious plague of incurable political knuckleheadism has swept our country, turning previously progressive white working-class people into mindless Trump worshippers, check out The Promise of a Progressive Populist Movement. This report is the work of People’s Action, a multiracial, grassroots coalition.

This year, its volunteers knocked on more than 5,000 doors, had nearly 2,500 phone conversations and visited scores of local events and churches in “Trump Country” — dozens of rural counties in 10 swing states including Iowa, North Carolina and Wisconsin that went for the yellow-haired corporatist in 2016. The door-knockers simply had open conversations asking folks in economically distressed rural communities what mattered to them politically. The most common initial response was, “No one’s ever asked me before.”

While Trump voters are predominantly white, the working-class families visited by People’s Action included black, Latinx, Native American and other residents living in these economically distressed rural communities. They were not impressed by the inflammatory bugaboos that idolatrous Trumpsters cite: hordes of invading aliens, mooching poor people, fake media, etc. Rather, what they most cared about was being told by word and deed that they — America’s hard-hit and hard-working families — don’t matter. Far from converting to the Narcissistic Church of the Donald, these voters saw Trump as merely a handy, blunt-force club to whack a two-party system that no longer speaks to them — much less for them.

And rather than embracing Trump’s elitist ideology and agenda, they told People’s Action that they want populist reforms like health care for all, fair wages, free access to education, clean water and a government uncorrupted by big money. As a North Carolina door-knocker said of all the front-porch conversations she had: “No one ever asked me to deny (workers) a living wage. No one ever asked me to give tax breaks to billionaires and multinational corporations. No one ever asked me to transfer wealth off the backs of working people, or allow big money to influence an election.”

One way to enact public policies that benefit common people over moneyed interests is to bypass corporate-purchased lawmakers and write the laws ourselves. In 26 states plus Washington, D.C., and numerous cities, We the People can put DIY statutes and/or constitutional amendments on the ballot — a citizens’ initiative process that in this era of plutocratic rule has become a major avenue for achieving progressive change. Here is a sampler of the scores of state and local measures voters will see on their ballots this fall.

ECONOMIC FAIRNESS: In 2016, all four of the state initiatives to raise the minimum wage passed, and this year worker advocates in Massachusetts, Michigan and Missouri will try to add their states to this win column. Also, Michiganders will vote on letting workers there earn paid sick leave.

DEMOCRACY: Voters in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Baltimore; and Denver will be offered new forms of small-dollar, public financing of elections to counter the crushing power of secret, unlimited donations by corporations. A South Dakota measure would ban corporate donations to candidates and political parties and bar “gifts” from lobbyists to elected officials. To stop incumbents from hand-picking their voters by gerrymandering their districts, people in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah will have a chance to turn redistricting over to independent, nonpartisan commissions. Reforms to democratize voting are proposed in Florida (a “second chances” initiative to let nonviolent felons vote after release); Michigan and Nevada (automatic voter registration); Maryland (same-day registration); South Dakota (vote-by-mail); and Massachusetts (ranked-choice voting, recently implemented in Maine).

HEALTH CARE: Trump and his cadre of far-out ideologues in Congress remain obsessed with killing Obamacare, Medicaid and other health programs that benefit workaday people, but several populist state initiatives are popping up to put some care back into health care: If proposals in Idaho and Utah pass, they would join 24 states in expanding Medicaid access. A ballot measure in California would limit the price of dialysis, and one in Massachusetts would require hospitals to maintain a safe level of nurses.

Ballot measures have proven so successful that corporate front groups have begun proposing deceptively worded initiatives that would forestall citizens from putting initiatives on the ballot. So far this year, initiatives to stop or restrict initiatives have been filed in Maine and South Dakota, to curtail people’s access to this process of direct democracy. Also, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the secretive, Koch-funded anti-democracy group, has generated bills in six state legislatures, essentially to keep citizen initiatives off the ballot.

The true political spectrum in America is not right to left; it’s top to bottom. A bright populist future awaits us if we join hands with the great progressive, racially inclusive majority of workaday people who’re no longer in shouting distance of the economic and political elites at the top.

Jim Hightower