2010: The Year of the Progressive Populist

The death of Doris (Granny D) Haddock brings to mind the title of her memoir: You’re Never Too Old to Raise a Little Hell. Ten years ago, at the age of 90, she undertook an arduous cross-country trip to promote campaign finance reform, an effort that helped create a Clean Elections Law in Maine featuring limits on campaign fund-raising and expenses and the public financing of modestly funded campaigns. Similar efforts at various degrees of development have occurred in other states.

The year 2010 began inauspiciously with the January decision of the Supreme Court that seemed the very antithesis of clean elections: the Citizens United v. F.E.C. which invalidated existing limitations on corporate and other special interests in campaign contributions, endowing on these collective entities a status of “personhood” with the free speech rights of citizens to make such contributions as they might please. Ironically this was the very month of Haddock’s death at age 100, an event that seemed to deepen the sense of dirge for campaign finance reform that the Citizens case had inaugurated.

I am not a big fan of dirges in unfortunate developments in political life, and I shortly published a pair of articles titled “Apres Citizens Le Deluge,” arguing that the death of democracy being mourned is a decidedly pre-mature announcement, that there is even the possibility that the Citizens decision was a surprising blessing in deep disguise, and that rather than “cursing the darkness” indicated by the decision, we well might see it as a wake-call for the need to “light candles” of illumination out of that darkness of corporate domination of our politics.

The simplest argument against Citizens as opening the flood gates of money control of our politics is the observation that these politics were already awash in plutocratic domination before the decision, as demonstrated in the fact that Barack Obama spent nearly a billion dollars in his successful pursuit of the presidency. The best (legislature, city council, White House — fill in the blank — money can buy) had become an almost trite description of our electoral campaigns long before Citizens. That granted, is there any path of illumination available to us in escaping the cesspool of bought-and-paid-for politicians? As the difficulty of implementing campaign finance reform by legislated limits on contributions and/or expenditures has proven, any reliance on corruptly-elected officials legislating against the very system that brought them into power would seem to be a very poorly lighted pathway indeed.

Faced with such dilemmas in the effort to “take money out of politics,” I am advocating for a position that it is possible instead to “take politicians out of the money” or, to put it another way, produce a devaluation of money in its capacity to buy votes in the political market place. Being totally realistic, politicians and political parties will raise and spend as much money as they can raise and need to spend in order to gain election. Only by converting their fund-raising and expenditures into “negative incentives” in this marketplace can this “miracle” ever come about.

My argument is this: the transfiguration of political money from a politician’s necessity to his or her liability can be accomplished if candidates campaign smartly, emphasizing their own fund-raising and spending frugality in comparison with their opponents’ enormous chest-funds and lavish expenditures as the very basis of their appeal for votes.

What I have just described and am trying to promote through my internet activity is precisely such “populist” campaigns with severe limits on overall amount of funds raised and those raised from any individual or group. In this year of 2010 there is reason for optimism that the public is ready for this kind of campaigning and prepared to reward with votes those who carry it out. I hardly need point out the kind of popular anger against the Wall Street bankers whose greed generated economic misery for so many that has made poverty almost respectable (at least very common) and the life styles of the rich and famous increasingly repugnant.

More than once, I’ve heard someone express frustration in the thought that their campaign donations, whether rendered to a Democrat or Republican, would be unlikely to promote policies of benefit to the people at large, and it has taken some nudges to suggest that they expend their modest donations for the benefit of those candidates who are campaigning under a populist political banner. On such considerations as this, I believe that we will be surprised indeed at the performance of “third party” candidates in this year’s elections. The populists may not win these elections, but they will indeed send a message to major party candidates that taking themselves to a greater degree “out of the money” is something they must do for their own benefit. It may even encourage them to support some of those long-delayed campaign finance reform laws.

You can’t really talk much these days about populist anger at incumbent politicians without considering the prototypical “populists” of today, those Tea Party types who are so angry at the perceived extravagance of elected officials who spend their much-beloved tax money on policies that they believe are unworthy of such “waste.”

To finish my argument about 2010 as the year of the progressive populist, I must address the possibility, as many will maintain, that populist discontent will be expressed in a mostly regressive manner by people determined to carry out the conservative Republican agenda of “shrinking” government to a size that it can be washed down a bath tub. As a person of totally progressive philosophy, I would regard this as a very unfortunate consequence of a “new populism” in our politics. I am, therefore, going to offer a bit of political analysis to suggest that populist campaigning is not simply another way of taking us back into the darkness of a Newt Gingrich world.

Here’s my point. An article by David Helling of McClatchy Newspapers has suggested that the Tea Party (regressive populist) movement has actually driven a wedge into the electoral prospects of the Republican Party. For example, on the issue of immigration reform, likely to come to the fore of public attention as this year goes on, many conservative Republicans, recognizing the economic value to employers of immigrant labor, are eager to find paths to citizenship of undocumented immigrants that will tend to stabilize that work force, whereas Tea Partyers are more likely to express a working class nativism and xenophobia that blames immigrants not only for “taking jobs” from native workers, but for creating an undue tax burden for provision of services to them that they, the nativists, have to add to their already-stressed tax bills.

Now what is the effect for the progressive side of the political spectrum to a “wedge” driven into the regressive side? A split vote obviously, as there is so much Tea Party disillusionment with business-catering Republicans that they they vote for their own candidates or simply “stay home” on election day, endangering the electoral chances of the GOP candidates. But what might develop as a three-way race between GOP, Tea Party and Democratic candidates could become a four-way race if those men and women willing to take a straight progressive stance on policy issues were to offer an alternative to the Democrats. This third party of the left — whatever it might be or might become — would be composed of people who do not need to “triangulate” their views to attract the support of, say, Blue Dog Democrats, with their proclivity to regressive views on such issues as abortion, immigration reform, gay rights and gun control.

I can easily see the possibility that our much-vaunted 2-party system could thus become a 4-party one as a result of the unique conditions of this extraordinary year in our history. In such a system, you don’t need 51% of the votes to win an election, you need 26% — a number well within the reach of progressives if we will campaign truly progressively as well as in populist fashion.

It is reasoning like this that has led me to undertake a project called Campaign Corner which is designed to promote precisely such progressive populist campaigns for this campaign season and beyond. It can be seen here. At this point, only a little over 2 weeks into its development, the people who have “signed on” to involvement in the Corner are predominantly candidates of the Green Party, but independents and those representing other parties will likely join as well and, as I have said, the outline of what may emerge as a dominant party among progressive populists has yet to become clear and, in a sense, it doesn’t matter whether in 2010 a coherent and effective such national progressive populist party is established. If even a handful of Green, other third party or independent candidates were elected to Congress or to statehouses or local governing bodies, the “complexion” of our politics could begin to change in quite dramatic ways.

Jerry D. Rose is a retired professor of sociology from State University of New York at Fredonia, now living in Gainesville Florida. He may be contacted at: jerrydrose11@yahoo.com. Read other articles by Jerry, or visit Jerry's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. lichen said on April 21st, 2010 at 2:11pm #

    No, it does need to be a law, not a voluntary thing that some isolated people try in a campaign. We can mandate full public funding for elections, with no advertising (lawn signs, commercials, etc) allowed. That is the only way to completely defeat corporate rule over elections; it already works in other countries; an honor system, however, works nowhere.

  2. Deadbeat said on April 21st, 2010 at 3:01pm #

    I don’t know. It all “sounds” good but IMO it once again looks like a DISJOINTED effort. There are too many initiatives. You already got the Coffee Party, now this progressive populist proposal, Richard Oxman has his TOSCA plan, etc.

    Why not coalesce these initiatives around supporting congressional Green Party candidates in 2010 and Cynthia McKinney in 2012. It seems to me what is needed is a central force coming from the left rather than a multiplicity of initiatives.

  3. Jerry D. Rose said on April 21st, 2010 at 3:22pm #

    I respect and expected the kind of objections that came from the first two posters. They take much the same form, of proposing more “realistic” alternatives that don’t seem so realistic when you consider the history of independent and third party candidacies in this country. Yes, I’d agree with lichen that it’s preferable if campaign finance limits were maintained by law and not voluntarily, but you don’t answer my objection that there is no way to get to campaign finance laws because any way, by legislation or referendum, these laws are to be accomplished, the elections will be controlled by moneyed interests. And I’m not really arguing for the “honor” system which I say is not the basis of my argument that the thing will work, not because of people’s honorable behavior but because in the market place for obtaining votes, money simply loses its value as its use becomes demeaned in the process of political competition.,

    Nor is deadbeat’s preference for a more “centralized” approach, perhaps under the banner of the Green Party, really a thing I could disagree with but anyone like I who has campaigned hearty for the 08 GP ticket knows, saying words like centralized, organized , unified and Green Party in the same breathe is virtually oxymoronic. Sociologists of social movements tell us they invariably start at the more decentralized level and develop organically as all these centers of activity grow into ways of cooperating with one another. My argument of last resort for the Campaign Corner is: why not? you say there’s as better game in town, you show me where it’s better and more practical and I’ll take my marbles and go over to your game.

  4. Deadbeat said on April 21st, 2010 at 4:50pm #

    Jerry D. Rose writes …

    Sociologists of social movements tell us they invariably start at the more decentralized level and develop organically as all these centers of activity grow into ways of cooperating with one another

    I took your piece to offer yet another ELECTORAL strategy. You are not suggesting a movement that is going to undertake DIRECT ACTION. That’s totally different. If you are going to suggest something that is going to disrupt the status quo — something like DEBT REPUDIATION — then that’s different. Your article is extremely distant from making such a radical suggestion.

    You are offering yet another electoral strategy and IMO that is better conducted through an “umbrella” like the Green Party since they are the most organized unit that the Left has right now for electoral participation. Why throw that away. It is more useful to build that up. The main issue with the Greens is their undemocratic bylaws that was taken advantage by provocateurs like David Cobb and Medea Benjamin in 2004. I haven’t followed the internal processes of the Greens lately but I do hope they have addressed that problem.

  5. Jerry D. Rose said on April 21st, 2010 at 5:02pm #

    deadbeat: the distinction here between a strategy and a movement kind of misses me. A strategy of voluntary campaign discipline could and should represent a movement in the political culture away from the current reign of plutocracy in our politics. Big movements in the culture start from small strategic steps that work and build into movements as they become exemplars for other strategists to follow. (Counter-culture people used to talk about “intentional or experimental communities” in which people lived according to ideals that they hoped would take hold in the larger culture). My language here may be a little dense but the determination to do something if even in a small way in the expectation that it will have resonance on the Big Picture is a hard piece of resolve to shake, and I’m not shaken or chilled by these cold waters. But as I said, it do understand and respect your reservations.

  6. lichen said on April 21st, 2010 at 6:00pm #

    Independents and third party candidates have used the ‘I’m a non-rich outsider’ line in elections for a long time, so that isn’t something new. The argument you make against removing private money from elections is very circular; furthermore, we have proof that bringing such an election system into place is possible because it has worked elsewhere. Claiming that moneyed interests would still be controlling the elections even if we had full public financing, with no advertising and media outlets mandated to give all candidates equal time is really quite insulting, and implies you don’t understand what the point is. We can make huge democratic reforms; but not if we are so obsessed with staying within the current rules and accepting corporate domination.

  7. lichen said on April 21st, 2010 at 7:08pm #

    And I’m surprised, deadbeat, that you are advocating uniting behind Cynthia Mckinney/the green party in 2012, when that is exactly what you didn’t do in 2008–you had nothing but criticisms and insults for both Ralph Nader and Cynthia Mckinney, and you didn’t vote green.