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Populist Alliances or Senseless Wars and Corporate Welfare

Ralph Nader (left) and Ron Paul. (Photos: ragesoss, Gage Skidmore)

Ron Paul and Ralph Nader have an intriguing idea. While both know that there are significant ideological divides between their camps (and so neither are suggesting forming a political party together), they are proposing populist coalitions on some major issues. Interviewed together by host Andrew Napolitano (“Freedom Watch,” January 19, 2011), Nader began by explaining why he views libertarians as allies with progressives in a fight against “corporate government.”

Nader: To the extent that they are genuine libertarian conservatives and not corporatists – corporatists believe in corporate government – they are great allies with many liberals and progressives to challenge the bloated, wasteful military budget, to challenge undeclared wars overseas, to challenge hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate welfare, handouts, giveaways, bailouts, to challenge the invasiveness of our civil liberties and civil rights by the notorious PATRIOT Act, to challenge the sovereignty-shredding, job-destroying NAFTA and World Trade Organization Agreements – and also, too, the first victory will be a powerful whistleblower bill, that libertarian conservatives and liberals and progressives in the Congress almost got through last year, to let government employees ethically blow the whistle on corporate rapaciousness and contracts and government misdeeds. Just think of that agenda for a dynamic political force!

Napolitano: … Congressman Paul, almost everything that Ralph Nader just said, you could have said. And you have said. Is this a coalition of the leading libertarian in the Congress and one of the leading progressives in American culture today?

Paul: Well, I believe in coalitions. You know, they always talk about “We need more bipartisanship.” And I say we have too much bipartisanship, because the bipartisanship here in Washington endorses corporatism, which Ralph and I disapprove of. But, you know, coalitions are different. Ralph and I do have some disagreements. But that list he just made, I agree with him on that. So I think we should come together and work together and I think we can.

American Populists

Whether or not Nader and Paul can pull off such a coalition, their conversation can promote a useful dialogue among populists and anti-authoritarians across the political spectrum. We Americans are routinely grouped as Democrats, Republicans and Independents and divided into left-liberal, right-conservative and center-moderate camps, but these categories tell us little about where we stand on two historically important questions: (1) Do you favor some fashion of elite rule, or are you a populist who believes in government that is genuinely of, by and for the people? (2) And if you believe that a ruling elite exists, who exactly are they?

In 2009, Rasmussen Reports declared: “55% of Americans are populist, 7% Support the Political Class.” Rasmussen defined populist as: trusting the American people's judgment more than America's political leaders; seeing government and big business as political allies working against the interest of consumers and investors; and viewing the federal government as one more special-interest group that primarily looks after its own needs. By 2010, utilizing the same definition, Rasmussen reported that 65 percent of voters are populist (or what they then called “populist/mainstream”) and only 4 percent support the political class. Including “leaners,” 81 percent are in the populist/mainstream category and 12 percent support the political class. Rasmussen reported that 76 percent of those polled generally trust the American people more than political leaders on important national issues; 70 percent believe that the government and big business typically work together in ways that hurt consumers and investors; 71 percent view the federal government as a special interest group; and a majority of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters share those views.

From America's very beginnings, there has been a battle between those who believe in genuine democracy versus those who are wary of the people's judgment. This was the battle between Thomas Paine versus both Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. In “Thomas Paine and the Promise of America,” Paine scholar Harvey Kaye describes how modern corporatists today promote “the lives of Founders like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, who in decided contrast to Paine scorned democracy and feared 'the people.'” Adams actually spoke of working people as “the common Herd of Mankind,” and he referred to Paine's “Common Sense” as a “poor, ignorant, Malicious, short-sighted Crapulous Mass.”

The battle between the people versus the elite continued to take center stage in the late 19th century, especially in the great populist revolt of insurgent farmers. It is difficult to categorize these populists along contemporary political lines of left-liberal, right-conservative, or center-moderate, but it is easy to categorize them as anti-elitists who believed that government should truly be of, by and for the people. Exploited and oppressed by a crop lien system, they became so riddled with debt that they routinely had to sell their farms and become “tenant farmers” or “sharecroppers,” often on what had once been their own property. Their clear enemy was the “moneyed elite,” which included the banking system, exploitative merchants and the railroads. These populists fought back, first economically, with large-scale working people's cooperatives, and then politically, with the People's Party in 1892 battling both the Democratic and Republican Parties (and winning the majority of votes in Kansas, Colorado, Nevada and Idaho). In 1896, they cast their lot with the Democratic Party and soon became extinct, not the last anti-corporatist movement to suffer such a death.

Populists and Anti-Authoritarianism

Real-deal populists are emotionally fueled by their contempt for illegitimate authority. Anti-authoritarians – be they Thomas Paine, Mark Twain, Ralph Nader or Ron Paul – have historically energized young people who have not yet been socialized into abandoning their rebelliousness against illegitimate authority. While authoritarians accept a standard schooling and a government that demands compliance to authority by virtue of rank and position, anti-authoritarians consider whether that authority is or is not legitimate before accepting it.

Today, there continues to be – as there was prior to the American Revolution – differing views of exactly who are the illegitimate authorities. In colonial America, at the same time that many of America's future founders were rebelling against only Parliament's “taxation without representation” and continuing to toast King George III, Thomas Paine was declaring in his January 1776 pamphlet “Common Sense” that the whole of British authority – Parliament, the monarchy, the aristocracy and their Constitution and the East India Company – were illegitimate authorities for Americans; and that independence (still a taboo word for many of these future founders) made common sense.

What today are America's illegitimate authorities? Giant corporations? A federal government which has become a powerful special-interest institution? Or a “corporatocracy” – a partnership between the wealthy elite, giant corporations and collaborating government officials?

When populists such as Nader and Paul both use the terms corporatists and corporate government, this greatly improves the possibility of coalitions and alliances among populists. While it is more comfortable for many libertarian populists to rail only against “government tyranny” and for many progressive populists to rail only against “corporate tyranny,” what can unify populists is a recognition that elite rule consists of a “corporatocracy tyranny” – rule by a corporate-governmental partnership.

In a corporatocracy, while there are elections, giant corporations and the wealthy elite rule so as to satisfy their own self-interest. In a corporatocracy, corporations and the wealthy elite directly and indirectly finance candidates, who are then indebted to them; indebted government officials appoint to key decision-making roles those friendly to corporations, including executives from these corporations; high-level government officials are rewarded with high-paying industry positions when they exit government; and former government officials are given high-paying lobbying jobs so as to use their relationships with current government officials to ensure that corporate interests are taken care of.

With respect to the corporatocracy, as Nader and Paul have recently evidenced, it is not difficult to forge alliances among progressive and libertarian populists who agree about ending US involvement in unnecessary wars, wasteful defense spending, government violations of our civil liberties and Wall Street bailouts, and other corporate welfare. However, there remain other significant disagreements not only between progressive and libertarian populists, but within these particular groups (e.g. libertarian heroes such as Jesse Ventura and Ron Paul disagree about abortion). Will these disagreements – ideological, cultural and psychological ones – keep them, too, divided to form coalitions?

Are Populist Divisions Irreconcilable?

The most significant ideological difference between progressive populists and libertarian populists are about the role of free markets and government. Progressive populists, similar to 19th-century agrarian populist rebels, believe it is naive to trust the unbridled free market because concentrated economic power (inevitable in an unregulated market economy) can be just as dangerous as concentrated political power, in no small part because those holding concentrated economic power can too easily acquire undue political power for themselves; and therefore, the people must take control of government to counterbalance this. In contrast, many libertarian populists – unlike 19th-century populists – have faith in the free market and believe it is naive to trust any government, including one created in the name of the people, because such a government will be taken over by an elitist cadre.

Thus, Paul and Nader disagree on health care solutions. Nader clearly believes a proper use of the government is to create single-payer, Medicare for all. But Paul, in his recent interview together with Nader, states, “Well, we both oppose the corporatism that's involved in medicine and that's one thing we agree on. But no, I disagree with the delivery of health care by the government.”

Paul, a physician, actually hates both government and insurance company involvement in health care. In a 2007 Republican debate, he stated, “We've had managed care, now, for about 35 years. It's not working and nobody's happy with it. The doctors aren't happy. The patients aren't happy. Nobody seems to be happy – except the corporations, the drug companies and the HMOs.” Paul's free-market solutions to health care are not exactly clear, but his loathing of insurance companies (and their managed care) and drug companies should at least make progressive populists curious about his alternatives. Perhaps, this is one issue that Nader and Paul will have to agree to disagree, but it seems that Paul can be ideologically consistent and agree that individual states should be able to experiment with single payer or a powerful public option to insurance companies.

Can coalitions of diverse anti-authoritarians hold together on various issues? One example of an anti-authoritarian movement that I am personally familiar with is the mental health treatment reform movement, which comprises people who identify themselves as “on the left,” others who identify themselves as “libertarians,” and still others who disdain any political labels. I can tell you from my nearly two decades of working with these reformers that they certainly have different political views, but they all share a distrust for drug companies, a contempt for pseudoscience and a belief that people deserve truly informed choice with respect to treatment. Most of these reformers respect Erich Fromm, the democratic-socialist psychoanalyst, along with Thomas Szasz, the libertarian psychiatrist, both passionate anti-authoritarians who have confronted mental health professionals for using dogma to coerce and control people (e.g., psychopathologizing homosexuality until the 1970s; and currently, diagnosing rebellious young people with “oppositional defiant disorder” and medicating them).

Similarly, there is an anti-authoritarian educational reform movement comprised of both libertarian educators such as John Taylor Gatto and progressive educators such as Alfie Kohn, who are unified in their agreement that most standard schools are oppressive environments that more often encourage obeying orders and dependence on authorities rather than nurturing curiosity and critical thinking.

Mutual Respect: An Antidote to Being Divided and Conquered

One of the least discussed differences among contemporary anti-authoritarians – but a crucial one – is their view of human nature, which often divides them in an emotional manner that inhibits respectful dialogue. Many self-identified libertarians believe that people are essentially competitive and motivated by self-interest, while many self-identified progressive populists believe that human beings are essentially cooperative and altruistic. Both sides would do well to read historian Lawrence Goodwyn's “Populist Moment” in which he tells us the following about the 19th-century farmer insurgents:

Populists thought of man as being both competitive and cooperative. They tilted strongly toward the latter, but they confronted the enduring qualities of the former. They accepted this complexity about mankind, and they tried to conceive of a society that would be generous – and would also house this complexity.

In addition to Goodwyn, modern libertarian and progressive populists who want to follow Nader and Paul's coalition-building lead might consider taking seriously the wisdom of Hillel, the great Jewish scholar. Two thousand years ago during the time of the Roman Empire's domination, Hillel attempted to provide greater unity and strength for his people and for future generations of rebels against illegitimate authority. He confronted the unnecessary and weakening divide between “self-interest” and “cooperation” that often exists within ourselves and among one another:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
And, if not now, when?

When populists respect the complexity of their own humanity, they will gain a certain wholeness that creates greater psychological strength. That strength results in greater self-security, which makes people more capable of respecting different points of views. And then – rather than being divided and conquered by their differences – populists can unite on both their essential anti-authoritarianism and on their respect for differences.

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