Saturday, May 09, 2009
Listen to the Man in the Big Hat
They [Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Glenn Beck, and other servants of oligarchy posing as populists] are abetted by a media establishment that carelessly (and lazily) misapplies the populist label to anyone who claims to be a maverick and tends to bark a lot. Although the targets they're usually barking at are poor people, teachers, minorities, unions, liberals, protestors, environmentalists, gays, immigrants, or other demonized groups that generally reside far outside the center of the power structure--the barkers are indiscriminately tagged as populist voices.The more things change, huh? Read more here.
First of all, populism is not a style, nor is it a synonym for "popular outrage." It is a historically grounded political doctrine (and movement) that supports ordinary folks in their ongoing democratic fight against the moneyed elites.
The very essence of populism is its unrelenting focus on breaking the iron grip that big corporations have on our country--including on our economy, government, media, and environment. It is unabashedly a class movement. Try to squeeze Lord Limbaugh into that philosophical suit of clothes! He's just another right-wing, corporate-hugging, silk-tie elitist--an apologist for plutocracy, not a populist.
Not only is American populism a powerful and vibrant idea, but it also has a phenomenal history that has largely been hidden from our people. The Powers That Be are not keen to promote the story of a mass movement that did--and still could--challenge the corporate structure. Thus, the rich history of this grassroots force, which first arose in the late 1870s, tends to be ignored entirely or trivialized as a quirky pitchfork rebellion by rubes and racists who had some arcane quibble involving the free coinage of silver.
The true portrait of populism is rarely on public display. History teachers usually hustle students right past this unique moment in the evolution of our democracy. You never see a movie or a television presentation about the movement's innovative thinkers, powerful orators, and dramatic events. National museums offer no exhibits of its stunning inventions and accomplishments. And there is no "populist trail of history" winding through the various states in which farmers and workers created the People's Party (also known as the Populist Party), reshaped the national political debate, forced progressive reforms, delivered a million votes (and four states) to the party's 1892 presidential candidate, and elected 10 populist governors, six U.S. senators, and three dozen House members.
This was a serious, thoughtful, determined effort by hundreds of thousands of common folks to do something uncommon: organize themselves so--collectively and cooperatively--they could remake both commerce and government to serve the common good rather than the selfish interests of the barons of industry and finance.
While the big media of that day portrayed the movement as an incoherent bunch of conspiracy-minded bumpkins, the populists were in fact guided by a sophisticated network of big thinkers, organizers, and communicators who had a thorough grasp of exactly how the system worked and why. Most significantly, they were problem solvers--their aim was not protest, but to provide real mechanisms that could decentralize and democratize power in our country. The movement was able to rally a huge following of hard-scrabble farmers and put-upon workers because it did not pussyfoot around. Its leaders dared to go right at the core problem of an overreaching corporate state controlled by robber barons. Populist organizers spoke bluntly about the need to restructure the corporate system that was undermining America's democratic promise.
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