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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Democratic populism must be about us

When he came to the U.S. Senate, the admirable Tom Harkin of Iowa helped found the Populist Caucus. He said that populism is based on the conviction that “freedom and democratic institutions rest on the widest possible dissemination of wealth and power — and we’ve come to the point where too few people have too much and the rest of us have too little.” That was in 1985. Then, the top 1 percent owned just under 32 percent of the nation’s wealth. Now it’s close to

40 percent, twice as much as what the entire bottom

90 percent owns. If Harkin was right, the peril to democracy is not Donald Trump, but the gross economic inequality that prompted the anger and resentment that propelled him to victory.

I noted in the first of these three columns about populism the mistake of not assigning importance to Trump’s approval rating, which has rarely fallen below 40 percent despite the revelations we revel in nightly. Should we just say that 4 out of 10 of our fellow Americans are Clinton’s “deplorables” and thus unworthy of consideration? To do so is both morally untenable and politically stupid.

Right-wing populists typically misdirect popular resentment. They may say they oppose the wealthy elites, but they mainly focus on scapegoats like blacks and immigrants. Those in control appreciate the misdirection. Doubtless they would prefer a Bush for the sake of predictability, but better a Trump than a Sanders.

Obama offered people hope and then mostly betrayed them. The top 1 percent got 95 percent of the wealth generated by the recovery over which he presided. Then Trump offered them hope and betrayed them, although in inept and terribly destructive ways he has tried to deliver on his promises to unemployed miners and factory workers.

We need a president as dedicated as Huey P. Long to put government at the service of the downtrodden, not the oligarchs. But as I said last week, we don’t need a savior. We need an energized civil society, especially in those parts of the country afflicted by the surrender of autonomy and a permanent state of insecurity.

Those to whom Trump appeals extol family, churches and communities, but they regard them essentially as shelters for the victims of concentrated economic and political power. They don’t think of building decentralized and pluralistic power. They aren’t getting the civic education that comes from working in community-based organizations.

The left must avoid getting locked with the right into a politics of mere electioneering. That’s what happened to the original populist party, the People’s Party of America, in the 1890s. It drew its strength from the Farmers’ Alliances of the 1870s and 1880s, which organized chapters for self-help as well as advocacy of policies such as federal regulation of railroad shipping rates. Many of the chapters set up cooperative stores and mills. As a third party, the People’s Party had considerable success in the 1892 election, but then dissipated its strength by staking everything on William Jennings Bryant and his crusade for “Free Silver” in 1896.

The danger of populism, both left- and right-wing, is fascism. But that outcome isn’t inevitable. If populist leadership is symbiotic with a vital civil society, it remains democratic. Politically, we must be internationalists (not imperialists), promoting a just and peaceful world order. But economically, as much as possible we must disengage from the global economy as currently structured, and instead build and support cooperative production, consumption and financing. We must become the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.

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