Finding populism today
Mass movements don’t just appear out of the fog, fully grown, structured and mobilized. They emerge in fits and starts over many years, just as the American Revolution did, and as did the Populists’ original idea of a “cooperative commonwealth.”
In 2011, a serendipitous moment for the populist cause rumbled across our land. 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.
The uprising was ridiculed (even by many progressive groups) as naive, undisciplined and “not serious.” Who’s in charge? Where’s their strategic plan? All this carping about Occupy failing to produce the usual trappings of a Washington-focused interest group missed two essential points: (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. 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. You will find 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, 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.
– 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 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 Populist movement. The moment is ripe to bond them into something larger.
Jim Hightower is national radio commentator, columnist and author.