From JONATHAN MARTIN
Labor unions hoped to turn the Wisconsin recall election into a rallying cause for their ailing movement. But a Democratic president couldn’t be dragged off the sidelines for the fight.
Anti-Wall Street activists were itching to see JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon bashed like a piñata at a congressional hearing just two weeks after his firm blew $2 billion in risky speculation. But Democratic senators greeted him with flowers, not fury.
And, as President Barack Obama attempts to make Mitt Romney’s history as a wealthy buyout artist a centerpiece of his 2012 message, he is second-guessed and hushed by some of the leading voices in his own party.
What the hell ever happened to populism in the Democratic Party?
The recent convergence of setbacks on the left has activists and historians alike pondering anew how the modern Democratic Party has severed its connection to its own history — a tradition that many liberals wrongly imagined was about to spring back to life in the Obama years.
Populism — with its rowdy zeal to brawl against economic elites on behalf of the working classes — was for decades the party’s defining cause.
In language that highlights the tameness of contemporary class warfare, President Franklin D. Roosevelt railed against “economic royalists” and the “forces of organized greed,” and, of his business opponents, he gloated, “I welcome their hatred.”
These days, it’s possible to count on one hand the number of unapologetic populists in the U.S. Senate and, besides Elizabeth Warren, there are few more on the horizon.
For the fighting left, it is a frustrating puzzle. If ever there was a moment for a good, old-fashioned class war, at first blush it seems now should be the time. Yet even after the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, there are few politicians preaching, or practicing, the old-time religion. The Occupy Wall Street movement, leaderless and without clear aims, is petering out as quickly as it sprang up and seems destined to have scant impact on the politics of 2012.
Politicians, union leaders and scholars cite four broad reasons why populism is not making much of a revival in the age of Obama:
*The political infrastructure doesn’t exist. Class-based partisan appeals by Democrats in the early and mid-20th century were typically supported by a robust and well-organized labor movement. That doesn’t exist in any similar form these days.
*Even populist politicians need money. Conspiracy theorists who believe campaign contributions drive the agenda aren’t altogether wrong. It is virtually impossible to be a successful national Democrat without relying heavily on business interests, including the financial industry, for campaign funds.
*The president, a man comfortable in elite circles, is not temperamentally inclined for the kind of sustained, rough-edged partisan combat that true populist politics requires. So, while he is tempted by populist appeals on some days, he often turns ambivalent and changes his message the next.
*Most important of all, lots of Democrats simply do not support populism, on either ideological or stylistic grounds. Many upscale Democrats believe that Washington needs less combat, not more, and populist messages strike them as irrelevant at best, demagogic at worst. Even some working-class voters have their assets in the stock market, because of their 401(k)s and IRAs, making even the most traditional of Democrats believe their interests are more in line with Wall Street than opposed.
This has left business as politically influential as at any time in recent history. And, with the 2010 Citizens United decision, in which the Supreme Court struck down key limits on contributions, the capacity of corporate interests to directly control campaigns may be as significant as at any time since the Gilded Age.
“They own the Republican Party, and they have too much influence in my party, I mean there’s no question about that,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a true-blue populist up for reelection who has had $8.3 million spent against him already by third-party groups, most of them allies of business . “That’s why wealth is so concentrated at the top. And that’s all enforced now by this outside spending. Every member around here has had to have thought at times that, ‘If I vote this way the wrath of God is coming down on me.’”
Damon Silvers, policy chief at the AFL-CIO, portrayed the economic crash of 2008 and the Citizens United case as a cruel convergence for the cause of populism.
“Citizens United has opened the tap on an ocean of money,” Silvers said. “The fear of that money is a trap. It stops politicians from talking about the issues voters are talking about: jobs, outsourcing, inequality, an unfair tax system. The only way to engage in the conversation the public cares about in this time of economic crisis and popular anger is to stand up to the power of money in politics.”
The crash of 2008 and backlash to the bailout left many liberals hopeful that there would be an opening for, if not a 21st-dentury New Deal, at least a sustained period of populist legislation. But for many progressives, the signature laws passed in Obama’s first term fell short of what they envisioned. The stimulus wasn’t big enough, healthcare reform didn’t include a public option and the crackdown on Wall Street didn’t go far enough. Then came the 2010 election, in which the right tapped into an anti-Obama backlash and recaptured the U.S. House.
But populism’s decline is rooted in more long-term factors. Chief among these is the collapse of organized labor.
“If you vote to break up the major banks, within weeks you’ll be flooded with millions of dollars in attack ads,” observed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). “If on one hand your allies are not as strong as they used to be and your opponents are much stronger, then you get more nervous.”
Just under 12 percent of the American workforce belonged to a union in 2011 — down from a ’50s-era high of about 35 percent.
“The labor union movement is the movement that carries [populism] into the Democratic Party, and as it gets weaker populism has gotten weaker,” lamented Robert Borosage, a longtime liberal activist who heads the Campaign for America’s Future.
“Walter Reuther was on the cover of Time magazine because an auto strike shook the foundation of the American economy,” noted Democratic strategist and labor veteran Steve Rosenthal. “That’s not the case anymore. Bob King is a great union president and a great populist. But he does not have the juice Reuther had just because of the numbers.”
And of the workers who are unionized now, more are in public-sector jobs — making them easier political prey for the right.
“It’s not the grange, it’s not the factory floor, it’s the bureaucrat,” said liberal author Rick Perlstein, explaining why today’s union movement is seen with less sympathy.
And without a strong labor movement, there is less institutional power nudging the political conversation toward matters of economic justice and reminding Democrats from whence their electoral strength springs.
“In order for populism to be powerful, populist institutions have to be powerful,” is how Georgetown University professor Michael Kazin put it.
But as Kazin noted, the energy in the progressive movement over recent decades has been more on cultural issues such as gender equality and gay rights than on bread-and-butter issues like wages and hours.
“The old liberal emphasis on the haves and the have-nots hasn’t been there,” said Kazin, author of books on the history of the left and William Jennings Bryan. “They’ve been focused on issues perceived as upper-middle-class issues.”
And, soon after Occupy Wall Street appeared to draw attention to economic inequality, the movement faded, a victim of its own lack of goals and leadership.
“It didn’t have much basis in institutions,” said Kazin.
As Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) put it in a speech at the Campaign for America’s Future Take Back the American Dream conference in Washington: “The left is too individualistic.”
Assessing their counterparts on the right, Ellison said, “They do kind of fall in line, don’t they? We need a greater degree of unity.”
The conference itself, which seeks to keep a fairly tight focus on the core populist issues like jobs, protecting entitlements and taking on entrenched power, was testimony to the left’s institutional shortcomings when compared to conservatives.
A speech by Brown, maybe the Senate’s leading populist and one of the right’s biggest targets this year, drew a fraction of what an appearance by a similar conservative star would find at CPAC. At least a dozen empty tables were set up in a hotel ballroom already divided in half. Brown spoke just before 9 a.m, so timing can partly explain the lackluster crowd.
But it was who didn’t appear before or after the Ohioan that speaks to the liberal challenge. Not a single high-profile Obama official was on the conference’s agenda just months before the presidential election. By comparison, CPAC in 2004 featured Vice President Dick Cheney.
It was a reminder of how the right has seized populism for its own ends. Railing against unelected judges, media elites and ivory tower academics, conservatives have won over many working-class voters on cultural appeals. Liberals roll their eyes at political scions like George W. Bush and Mitt Romney speaking up for the common man as their campaigns are funded by business interests. But, as Ellison noted, they’ve been effective at sticking to the same script for decades and harnessing their own populist grievances for political success.
Some leading liberals dismiss the focus on Obama and whether he’s living up to the base’s ideal.
“The movement drives the people, not the personalities,” said Ellison, who used his speech to playfully shame the base about being too consumed with the president.
“Martin Luther King never called Lyndon Johnson and said, ‘Man, I’m feeling down today, Lyndon, I don’t want to go march today,’” said Ellison. “’You’re not inspiring me, Lyndon. Lyndon, you’re not making me feel it.’ That’s crazy, isn’t it, that’s crazy.”
Still, while acknowledging the decline in liberal institutions, other progressives note that political leaders matter, too, and point a finger at the White House.
Obama’s absence from the Wisconsin effort to recall GOP Gov. Scott Walker after Walker’s attempts to change labor law was very much noted by the left. A top Obama official pushed back on the idea that they let labor fight the recall on their own. “We were deeply involved,” said the official. “Nobody can argue with a straight face that his going there would have changed the outcome.”
That’s cold comfort for some liberals.
“Leadership matters,” said Perlstein. “[Obama] borrowed populist energy in his campaign, but in his heart he really does seem to be a technocrat. He takes great comfort from being around elites.”
Said another liberal about Obama: “He believes in expertise. He thinks that surrounding himself with people from McKinsey and Goldman he’s got expertise in the room. But he doesn’t. He’s got a bunch of advocates for a particular interest in American society.”
The president has warmed the hearts of some true-blue populists with the Bain ads and his push on the Buffet rule.
But there’s no expectation that Obama will become a latter-day Bob La Follette if he’s reelected.
“Clinton ran more populist than he governed, and I think Obama will do the same,” said Borosage.
Part of the big-picture challenge for today’s Democratic office-holders is that it’s harder to just launch blunt force attacks on Wall Street when so many voters have money invested with it and there’s an Edward Jones office on so many main streets.
“The majority of Americans, one way or another, do have money on Wall Street,” Kazin said.
Further, cynicism in the electorate has spiked so much that it’s difficult for Democrats to define only Republicans as those doing the bidding of entrenched interests.
“The voters think both parties are corrupt,” lamented longtime Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. “Both parties are seen as corrupted by campaign money in general and Wall Street in particular. Populism is harder when they think that’s business as usual.”
The maxim is that the higher one climbs on the political ladder, the more difficult it is to fend off the influence of Big Money.
As Obama himself wrote in “The Audacity of Hope,” the group-think temptation comes easily.
“When I decided to run for the Senate, I found myself spending time with people of means,” wrote the then-senator. “As a rule, they were smart, interesting people, expecting nothing more than a hearing of their opinions in exchange for their checks. But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class. I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the sense that I spent more time above the fray, outside the world of hardship of the people that I had entered public life to serve.”
But the money demands are altering the sort of candidates who even get into the races in the first place, Rosenthal argued.
“The class of candidates has changed over the years,” said the operative. “When you can’t run competitive elections even in the House without raising 3, 4, 5 million bucks it means you’re looking at people who have the kind of contacts who can help them raise money. So the teacher, the plumber, the firefighter isn’t running for Congress.”
And it changes the kind of Democrat in the Capitol.
“Right now, we’ve got a grotesquely distorted distribution of income and wealth in America, in which you’ve got the top 1 percent owning 40 percent of the wealth and the middle-class collapsing,” said Sanders. “So one might think that within that context, Democrats would come out swinging. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. There are a number of people in the Democratic Caucus who are as influenced by corporate interests and campaign contributions in a way not dissimilar to Republicans,”
The last Democrat to truly tap into mass anger — though about war, not economics — said the campaign finance system desperately needs fixing to rein in the power of business but fretted that only a crisis may prompt reform.
“It may even take another banking collapse before that gets fixed,” said Howard Dean, the 2004 presidential candidate and former Democratic National Committee chairman.