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The Continued Collapse of Democratic Populism

Jonathan Martin goes searching for populists in the Democratic Party, and comes up empty.

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.

In a real sense, this searches for a Democratic Party that hasn’t been on the scene in at least 20 years. Even the more recent netroots movement was organized much more around social and cultural issues and partisanship than economic populism. Democrats who want to get elected court corporate interests in the absence of a robust labor movement, and the rest of the story writes itself.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t see occasional examples of populism on discrete issues. Russ Feingold’s new organization, with its feisty depiction of the Supreme Court as an arm of corporate America, is an example. 132 House Democrats today demanded to see the text of the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership, a global trade deal that could decimate state sovereignty and allow corporations to subvert national laws. And while I wouldn’t call it populist, the bid by one small progressive group to target the Administration “kill list” is certainly one concerned with protecting people over the powerful.

But these are relatively small and isolated examples. Writ large, the policy framework of the Democratic Party – if you can discern it – eschews populism for a technocracy rooted in neoliberal economics and the kind of free market solutions moderate Republicans once held and then discarded. And progressives, pulled by an election-year “lesser of two evils” dynamic (that occurs every two years, making it impossible to movement-build if you’re constantly diverted into an electoral context), tend to fall in line.

Finally, attempts to “take over the party,” which I’ve personally witnessed since 2004, have not succeeded. Partisans always fall back on polling that shows how there are more moderates in the “Big Tent” Democratic Party. But the rank and file takes their cues from their leadership. And while it’s a long game to take over a party – it took Republicans close to two decades between 1964 and 1980 – it appears that the successes are actually getting fewer as time goes on.

I don’t have any great answers to this, and there are parts of the Politico article that are simply wrong (he pushes a notion that people just don’t like populism, which I guess is why both parties always pretend to carry that mantle during elections). But it’s worth discussing. We have, not unique for this era, an institutional failure inside a party that has walked away from many of its ideals. How can that reconcile itself in an age of Big Money, a dwindling labor movement, and a top hierarchy opposed to those ideals at the root?

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David Dayen

David Dayen