Increasingly, “populism” is coming to mean anti-Clintonism. [On “clintonism,” see “Combat Clintonism!” April 27.] Populists oppose “free trade” agreements that harm workers, tax policies that benefit the rich at everyone else’s expense, and other government policies that benefit big corporations and agribusinesses at the expense of organized labor, small businesses, and family farmers. It is much less clear what populists are for.
This is one reason why the term is unfortunate. A more important reason is that it conflates ways of opposing Clintonism that are not of a piece. “Populism” groups together left wing advocates of alternatives to capitalism and advocates of left alternatives within capitalism. As the neo-liberal consensus of the past two and a half decades becomes unhinged, this is potentially a source of confusion inasmuch as anti-corporate and anti-capitalist positions can diverge considerably, and there are many varieties of each. A potentially graver problem is the fact that there are right-wing political orientations with as much right to the name as the left wing positions that the term is now used to designate; for instance, nativist opposition to immigration could be called “populist,” as could other expressions of racism. There is therefore a risk of tarnishing the Left with the sins of the Right. In short, the current usage is analytically unsound and ahistorical. [For elaboration of the concept of “populism,” and also of “capitalism” and “left/right/and center” see the entries in my Political Keywords (Blackwell’s, 2007).] When influential progressives like Jim Hightower and Ralph Nader use the term to identify their own views, it only adds to the confusion.
Nevertheless, it is all to the good that “populism” (anti-Clintonism) is on the rise. According to an article by Robin Toner in this morning’s (July 16) New York Times, Democrats are finally responding to the “populism” of their base. Toner writes that Congressional Democrats and Democratic candidates for President are “increasingly moving toward a full-throated populist critique of the current economy.” They “are talking more about the anemic growth in American wages and the negative effects of trade and a globalized economy on American jobs and communities”; they are also talking more about growing inequalities and about the difficulties newly redundant workers confront. Among the main contenders for the Democratic nomination, John Edwards led the way. But now, according to Toner, they’re all doing it – even Hillary Clinton. She, of course, has a delicate task: simultaneously upholding Clintonism and its opposite. Fortunately for her, “populism” is a vague enough term that she might be able to pull it off.
Here is another case where the leaders cannot help but follow the base. It happened with the Iraq war; now it is happening with neo-liberal economic policies. This is all to the good. But there are two important caveats to bear in mind:
-first, the base is responding to the obvious – that Bush’s war of choice in Iraq is an abject failure, that the economic policies in place do more harm than good, except for the very rich (who keep getting richer). For many reasons – among them the fact that ours is essentially a one-party system with two competing wings, the fact that our media works to reinforce the economic and political power structure, the fact that so many “intellectuals” are servile to those elites – an alternative consciousness, one that would put the basic contours of foreign and domestic policy in question, is still mostly lacking. Therefore the danger of being taken in again by Pelosiites is great. [On the concept of “pelosiism,” see “Pelosiism: the Highest Stage of Clintonism, May 28.]
-second, Toner’s expression “full-throated…critique” is (perhaps inadvertently) on point. Whenever Democrats appeal to their base, their rhetoric takes a “populist” turn. This is not a new phenomenon. Recall the verbal populism of the not yet reborn Al Gore in 2000 when his handlers decided that he had to crush Ralph Nader’s electoral support. This year, thanks to the manifest failure of the Bush government, “populist” talk may resonate not just with the Democratic base but also with “independent” voters and even with disillusioned Republicans. We should therefore expect to hear more of it in the coming months. Should the Republicans nominate any of their now most likely candidates, the Democrats will have little reason to change the tone. What a field of losers the Democrats will have to run against – a failed mayor with fascisant inclinations and a record of incompetence, racism and sleaze [see Kevin Baker’s “A Fate Worse than Bush: Rudolph Giuliani and the Politics of Personality,” Harpers, Aug. 2007], a god-fearing family, family, family plutocrat whose religion many godly Republicans cannot abide [see “Snake Oil: Old and New,” June 3], an unrepentant war criminal turned war monger whose relatively decent stand on immigration has left his campaign impoverished; and a lazy, TV district attorney who, though reactionary and ill-informed as Reagan at his best, is uglier and a worse actor. Against competition like this, the lesser evil party’s candidate may well feel safe talking the talk long past the time (when the nomination becomes secure) that one would expect her or him to stop. But this is not to say that Clintonism is about to expire. Perhaps Al Gore was “born again” as a public citizen, but he’s the exception: Clintonites, especially if they are Clintons, are nothing if not slick opportunists. Once the mini “insurgency” welling up around them subsides, as it likely will after a Democrat is installed in the White House, there will no longer be any percentage in striking populist poses; they will govern again as Clintonites. This is why we must be especially vigilant in the coming primary season. It is likely to become more, not less, difficult to tell the candidates apart from what they say. With the exception of Dennis Kucinich and perhaps Mike Gravel, neither of whom has a chance to win, there may be very little space between them in fact; not because they really are “populists,” but because they are all Clintonites under the skin. It is possible, though, that Obama or, more likely, Edwards really does have a “populist” core. In any case, we will have to work hard to get the best we can out of the available field, and then to keep him (it won’t be her) on a “populist” track as best we can. This will not be easy; it may not even be possible. But the alternative – a more competently administered, “kinder, gentler” continuation of the present course – is a fate neither the country nor the world can abide.
NOTE: There are now fourteen co-sponsors of the Cheney impeachment resolution, H. Res. 333, introduced by Dennis Kucinich. Here is the honor-role (in alphabetical order): Yvette Clarke (New York/11), William Lacy Clay, Jr. (Missouri), Keith Ellison (Minnesota/5), Sam Farr (California/17), Bob Filner (California/51), Hank Johnson (Georgia.4), Dennis Kucinich (Ohio/10), Barbara Lee (California/9), Jim McDermott (Washington/7), James Moran (Virginia/8), Jan Schakowsky (Illinois/9), Maxine Waters (California/35), Lynn Woolsey (California/6), Albert Wynn (Maryland/4). Ellison, Johnson and Waters are members of the House Judiciary Committee.
The Chairman of that committee, John Conyers, has yet to act. Neither have the overwhelming majority of the members of the so-called Progressive Caucus. Shame on them all!