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2014: Populism Rising?

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The Beltway crowd has discovered populism. Senator Elizabeth Warren's surging popularity from her aggressive defense of Social Security and demand for Wall Street accountability has triggered talk of a populist challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016. Bill De Blasio indicted New York's gilded age inequality in his stunning victory in the New York Mayoral race. This month, President Obama returned to his campaign themes, delivering a speech calling inequality "the defining challenge of our time."

Republicans, preoccupied with their Tea Party zealots, mostly have avoided joining the debate, but the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party raised the alarm. In an incoherent article appropriately placed in the Wall Street Journal, the New Democrats at the Third Way scorned Warren for defending Social Security and Medicare and peddling a "dead end" "we can have it all fantasy." They beat a hasty retreat when they were slapped down by Neera Tanden, head of the Obama New Dem Center for American Progress, who then labored to paint Bill Clinton - Bill Clinton - as a populist. Gaseous Bill Keller of the New York Times weighed in for what he called the "center-left" against the "left-left" of Warren et al with arguments immediately dismembered by economist Dean Baker.

These are but the opening skirmishes of what is likely to be a fierce battle inside and outside the Democratic Party. Populism, by definition, doesn't trickle down from the top. It spreads as a bottom up movement that chooses and elevates its own leaders. It doesn't spread because Elizabeth Warren is espousing politically toxic and unpopular ideas, as the Third Wayers charged. Rather Warren is threatening because she champions attitudes and ideas that enjoy widespread popularity outside the beltway, but are slighted inside of it.

Populist movements grow out of popular discontent. For over thirty years, inequality has been growing. Profits and productivity and CEO salaries have risen, but workers haven't shared in the growth. But hard times, as Lawrence Goodwyn, the great historian of the Populist Movement notes, do not generate democratic movements. Times have been "hard" for most people for a long time. When families lose ground, people tend to believe that they are at fault, that their luck has been bad, that they made the wrong choices. They work harder; they take on debt; they get by.  Resignation and deference are normal. Movements start only when reality - and organizers - begin to open people's eyes.       


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