We’re populists. They’re not.
What our language tells voters about where we really stand.
Prominent Democrats are looking to redefine the party from a working-class perspective. I support this effort entirely, but with this advice: we should call ourselves “populists.” The term “inclusive populism” frames the debate from the perspective of identity politics, which will turn off the very voters we seek to reach.
Also, we have to start the fight with people who conflate the term “populism” with “demagoguery.” Inviting attack will open doors for us to differentiate between real populism and the “pseudo-populism” of Trump and other demagogues, which may be the defining political battle of our time.
Today, I am going to talk about naming: why we need a name for ourselves, and why that name should be “populism.”
Later, I will write about what it means to be a populist and the fact that the American dream is now officially dead and why.
After that, I am going write about the need to reframe the entire relationship between our society, our government and our economic system.
Democrats are talking about populism.
This Tuesday, a group of Democratic operatives convened in Washington to discuss how Democrats should better appeal to working class voters. The concern is that Democrats “…don’t fight hard enough for working-class people, and they aren’t tough enough on big, greedy corporations.”
You can read about this effort at:
This group was organized by Adam Jentleson and includes Ruy Teixeira, both of whom I had the pleasure of working with at the Center for American Progress. They are two of the most astute strategic thinkers in our community and the absolutely right people to be having this conversation.
From the article:
Jentleson championed an economic philosophy called “inclusive populism” — essentially, left-leaning economics without the nastiness of past populist movements, which have often channeled working-class voters’ resentment toward immigrants or racial minorities.
Not everyone could agree on what to call their nascent movement, with one attendee noting that the term “populist” comes freighted with historical baggage.
I agreed wholeheartedly with what they were trying to do, with one exception:
I believe we should retake the term “populism” either on its own or with the word “economic” rather than use the term “inclusive populism.”
We need a term for our identity, not just our ideology.
For many years now, I have been grappling with the problem of what to call ourselves, and by “ourselves” I mean everybody who does not think of themselves as a conservative.
When the Left abandoned the perfectly good word, “liberal,” we essentially handed over to conservatives 100 percent of the control over our identity. Once they realized that we would bail on a term rather than defend it, they knew they had us and they’ve “owned” us ever since.
We don’t even realize how much we lost. Voters and politicians on the Right have been able to identify as conservatives. This gives people a way to identify themselves as part of a movement and a community without taking on a partisan label, and it allows for seamless integration between their ideological community and their political community. Non-profits can say, “Vote for conservatives” and they all know what to do.
We do not have any word that defines us all. People across the country can’t stand up and say, I am proud to be a ____________.
The fact that we have no common identity label is evident in this little problem: When Pew Research does its annual survey of Americans and how they identify ideologically, people are given a choice of conservative, moderate and liberal. People claim that the U.S. is a “conservative” country. How much of that perception comes from the fact that, when surveyed, people would need to identify themselves with a label that even elected Democrats don’t have the guts to use? It’s rather astounding that so many still do.
One problem is that there is no community for them to belong to. We have party operatives and officials. We have organizations and activists for specific issues. And we all treat “the people” as little more than ATMs. What about all the voters who identify with the ethos of shared responsibility and broad prosperity behind the New Deal and the Great Society? What do they have to belong to? The closest thing we have is a color, but while you can “vote blue,” you can’t be a “blue.”
Terms like “liberal” and “progressive” have their place, but they aren’t really the right word for the situation we find ourselves in right now.
What are we trying to communicate?
What is the core problem facing the American people right now?
After a great deal of thought and discussion, I have boiled it down to this:
Human beings should have the right to cooperate, to make decisions on behalf of each other and of their society as a whole. Democratic (representative, broadly participatory and majority rule) government is the tool we use to do that.
The right of people to take collective action that is critical to their well-being and more importantly, their survival, should supersede the right of the individual to generate unlimited wealth from property. In our society (and many others) it does not.
There we are. The best term to describe someone who believes in and advocates for these rights is a “democratic populist.” I identify as a “democratic populist” myself.
Protecting our democracy and defending democratic government is a war in and of itself, but that is not the purpose of this discussion. We’re trying to figure out how to articulate the second problem. For that reason, we should stick to just plain “populism.”
Thomas Frank’s book, The People, No! does a brilliant job of explaining why “populism” is the right word and ideology from a historical perspective. If you haven’t already read it, you should do so immediately. The short version is that the political term “populism” was coined and used in American history to mean exactly what we are trying to convey right now.
Words activate frames.
As I understand it, the term “inclusive populism” is intended to appeal to working class people of all colors and provide contrast with the term “populism” as currently used to signify the divisive, anti-elite rhetoric used by demagogues.
To successfully frame the debate, we must always define ourselves as what we are, not what we are not. The problem with the term “inclusive” is that it defines what we are trying to do from the perspective of identity politics.
The word “inclusive” is a trigger word for the identity politics frame. It is perceived by many as a signifier of membership in the identity advocacy community. Just visualize a rural, working-class white man saying “I’m an inclusive populist.”
Inclusive populism may mean, “populism that includes everyone, not just white christian people,” but the message is received as “I am concerned with economic fairness for women and people of color.” Even if that is what we are trying to say, we are signaling to people of color that we are more focused on their identity than their economic needs, which is why we are losing them in the first place.
So, let’s just call ourselves populists, because that’s what we are.
Why we should start the fight
Thomas Frank points out that we are the true populists. Calling demagoguery populism is not only wrong, it is a way of demonizing and dismissing true populism any time it should rear its inconvenient head. In the battle we are looking to take on, we know this attack is coming. Rather than try to avoid attack by qualifying our “populism” with defensive descriptors (which never works anyway) we should attack it head on.
We on the Left sometimes forget that we get to decide the meaning of the terms we use. We act like the media and the Right get to decide what words mean, and we are just helpless victims. So, let’s call ourselves populists. We actually want people to attack that choice, because it creates opportunities to explain the misuse of the term and redefine “pseudo-populism” as what it really is: white christian nationalism in the service of global corporate libertarianism.
Heather Cox Richardson calls it “Movement Conservatism”. Robert Reich likes “the Radical Right.” I like to think of them as “the unholy alliance” or “Corporate Christians” myself, but I would settle for “authoritarian pseudo-populism” if that’s the best we can get the press to go along with.
In my earlier issue, “The Audacity of Audacity” I explain how we set the agenda of the public debate by saying things that are intended to be perceived as controversial. The purpose is to get the public and the media to debate a question that forces people to see the situation from our perspective, and in doing so, provide opportunities for us to make our case.
In this case, the questions we want people debating are, “What is populism?” and “Are people like Donald Trump and Viktor Orban real populists?” and “Why is populism so popular right now?” These questions give us ample opportunities in the media to illuminate the differences between real populism and demagoguery.
We often use language to play it safe. We take great pains to be precise so we can avoid controversy. But all we end up doing is communicating the wrong messages to the people we are trying to reach and failing to generate media attention.
We have to define ourselves as what we actually are – populists – and pray that people raise the questions we so desperately want them to raise. That is how we will communicate to everyone what it actually means to be a populist and why it is so critically important right now.
This discussion will be continued in a future issue:
(Preview) What it actually means to be a populist and why it is so critically important right now.
The current economic situation is telling people that the American dream is dead: that any time they get, as President Biden calls it, “a little breathing room,” any slack at all between their paycheck and the cost of the things they need to survive, corporate America will take up that slack in order to maximize profits.
What does the conventional wisdom say? We must slow down the economy. Take away the slack, take that breathing room from the American people.
How is it that in our society, it is unthinkable to take action to limit companies to reasonable but not unprecedented profits, yet totally business as usual to cause an economy-wide recession and throw people out of work? What does this say about who we are, what our priorities are, and how our thinking has been limited by decades of market fundamentalist ideology?
What it tells people is this: if they save up, if they got stimulus money, if they got a raise, even if they get a better job, it doesn’t matter. If there is slack, it will not just be taken away, the different economic sectors will be fighting over that slack like sharks in a feeding frenzy.
Without substantive change, the only state we will ever be in is squeezed within an inch of our lives.
This is what the American people know. And if we can’t face that, we don’t have the right to call ourselves populists.
To be continued…
Thanks, as always, for reading. I hope you are able to use this in your work and your activism!
I look forward to your feedback and ideas.
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