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The Populist Wave: Politics and Pitchforks

In the end, no matter how popular populist attitudes are, it will take a movement to give them force.

Americans are in a surly mood, confronting rules they feel are rigged against them. President Barack Obama captured this populist temper in his re-election campaign. He then launched his second term declaring that inequality is the “most pressing challenge of our time,” and laying out a popular agenda to raise the federal minimum wage, provide pay equity for women, establish universal preschool and other initiatives that polls show the public strongly supports.

Republican obstruction, however, has blocked progress on all these — even as the House GOP last week passed Representative Paul Ryan’s budget, which cuts taxes for the rich and corporations, turns Medicare into a voucher program, slashes spending on education and protects subsidies to Big Oil.

Yet it is the president’s popularity that has cratered. Republicans are expected to easily retain control of the House in the November midterm elections — though Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) refuses to move bills on any of the public’s agenda. The Democratic Senate majority appears endangered. Data maestro Nate Silver is making the Republicans favorites to take the Senate in the fall midterms. The New York Times reports Democrats are “scrambling to avoid disaster.”

Why can Republicans block politically popular measures without paying a political cost? Is populism merely entertaining froth, all the rage in Berkeley salons but impotent in real-world politics?

In fact, populist sentiments are on the rise. But the stunted economic recovery — and big GOP money — makes it hard for Democrats to exploit them. Disarray on message pulls the populist punch. All this, ironically, helps conservative candidates peddle their own populist poses, often confusing voters.

Americans certainly are in a populist mood. Poll after poll report that the public thinks the rules are rigged to favor the few. Large majorities say they support populist reforms. More than 70 percent of Americans favor raising the minimum wage. Yet Boehner won’t allow a vote on it in the House of Representatives, and Senate Democratic leaders are having difficulty corralling their own majority to support it. Two-thirds of Americans think unemployment benefits should be extended. But Boehner still hasn’t allowed that to come to the floor for a vote.

Polls show that broad majorities of Americans believe the rich and the corporations are not paying their fair share of taxes. Nearly four out of five (79 percent, including majorities of both Republicans and Democrats) want to close loopholes to ensure multinational corporations pay taxes at the same rate as domestic companies. Yet bipartisan majorities of both chambers of Congress are about to pass a passel of “tax extenders” that include multibillion-dollar tax loopholes for General Electric, big banks and many other multinationals.

A majority of Americans say they are ready to throw every legislator out of office, including their own representative. So why do Republicans — the party of big business and big banks, whose legislators shut down the government to avoid raising taxes on the rich — look to gain seats rather than lose them in the midterm elections?

Americans aren’t fools — but they are inattentive. Pressed with getting through the day, they have little time to map the fights in Washington. They tend to hold the party in power — that is, the party that holds the White House — responsible.

And in the sixth year of the Obama presidency, the biggest issue for the public isn’t Gilded Age inequality — it’s the lousy economy. Americans continue to struggle with high unemployment, stagnant wages and low-paying jobs. Not surprisingly, nearly two out of three Americans think the country is on the wrong track. A majority thinks the economy is still in recession, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

When asked, “Who is most responsible for the current state of the economy” in the most recent Battleground poll by Lake Research and the Tarrance Group, 32 percent said Obama. Only 12 percent blamed Republicans in Congress, and a similar number named Democrats in Congress. Republicans hold an edge in the Battleground poll on which party is better able to handle the economy.

This reality stacks the deck against Democrats. It is reinforced by midterm election turnout patterns that favor Republicans. The fall electorate is expected to be older, whiter, more male, more married and more affluent than in presidential elections — all to Republicans’ advantage. In addition, as Pew Research Center polling reports, Republicans are far more enthusiastic about voting in November than Democrats. That’s particularly true this year, when the Democratic base — people of color, single women, the young — have fared the worst in the slow recovery.

Despite this, polls show many races still neck and neck. That’s because voters aren’t buying what Republicans are peddling on the economy, and most think Republicans aren’t on their side.

The fierce budget battles over the past few years, with Republicans willing to shut down the government to avoid raising taxes on the rich, have taken their toll. Republicans are about as popular as stomach ulcers. The Battleground poll confirmed that voters have more faith in Democrats than Republicans on key populist issues like Social Security, Medicare, standing up for the middle class and representing middle-class values.

Moreover, it’s premature to conclude populism has fizzled when it hasn’t even been tapped yet. Obama hasn’t exactly led a populist charge since his State of the Union address — where he purposefully pulled his punches. The only visible legislative battle over the last months ended in a bipartisan accord over an austerity budget. Otherwise it’s all been inside-the-Beltway politics, which most Americans don’t pay attention to.

GOP obstruction has managed to block not just legislation and appointments, but the Democrats’ message. “It’s always better to have votes to run on,” Jim Manley, former spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), put it, “and there hasn’t been a lot to run on so far.”

But Democrats are far from united on message — or even unified on the need for a unified message. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman, for example, is boasting, “Every one of our Senate candidates has a message that is unique to them and their states.” The problem is that when the ship is sinking, every man or woman, out for him or herself, is likely to add to the casualties.

Money Talks

Contrary to Chief Justice John Roberts’ purblind opinion in the McCutcheon case, big money pervades and corrupts our politics, undercutting populist impulses in the political class. To be viable, candidates must spend hours raising donations from wealthy donors. Talking to rich donors may not take the form of quid pro quo corruption — otherwise known as bribery — that Roberts concedes is objectionable. But it surely puts boundaries on what is “clubbable.”

Big money also forges ideological consensus. Even in this era of extreme partisanship, broad bipartisan agreement supports an agenda that helps the wealthy — including austerity budgets, free trade, big bank bailouts and policing the world. Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Agra, the health insurance industry and Wall Street deploy legions of lobbyists to make it clear that messing with them costs dearly.

For example, when House Finance Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) produced a comprehensive tax reform plan that included a levy on big banks with more than $500 billion in assets, Wall Street lashed back. Goldman Sachs and other financial institutions suspended discussions with Republicans about future fund-raisers. GOP leaders immediately scrambled to disavow Camp, declaring his tax plan would never come to a vote.

Americans understand the corruption – 75 percent now believe that “all politicians are corrupted by campaign donations and lobbyists.” Since all are so tainted, only the rare few — Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sherrod Brown (D- Ohio) — risk standing as champions of the people.

Faux Populism

Big money can also successfully confuse voters. Independent political action committees with deep pockets regularly deploy pollsters and message meisters to find the most effective ways to attack the opposition. The power of the populist message is demonstrated by the fact that the most reactionary candidates adopt it for their election campaigns. Consider the Koch brothers, infamous reactionary billionaires who are spending hundreds of millions to support candidates on the extreme right. Consider the $475,000 ad buy that Freedom Partners, a front group funded by the Koch brothers, is running in Iowa against Representative Bruce Braley, founder of the House Populist Caucus, who is running for the Senate.

“The government spent millions of taxpayer dollars to promote it. Now, health insurance companies stand to make billions. And Bruce Braley? He takes tens of thousands from his friends in the health insurance industry. For Iowans, it’s canceled policies and higher costs.”

This pure populist message is designed to help elect a Republican who will support the Ryan budget that would deprive some 40 million Americans of healthcare, repeal Obamacare and turn Medicare over to the private insurance companies. But it takes a well-informed voter to know that — and also to overcome the millions of dollars in negative ads now muddying perceptions.

GOP master strategist Karl Rove has warned Republicans not to assume that attacking Obamacare was the cause of a GOP victory in a special election to fill a vacant House seat in Florida earlier this year. Rove contended that a far bigger factor was that the Republican candidate, a registered corporate lobbyist, put his opponent’s record “in a larger frame,” assaulting her for making millions as a banker while laying off employees and cutting sweetheart deals as the chief financial officer of the state.

Seniors across the country will likely be hit with millions spent on dueling ads over Medicare — with Republicans claiming that Democrats cut it to pay for Obamacare and Democrats claiming that Republicans would cut it and turn it into a voucher system.

Whose Side Are You On?

Given the lousy economy, inattentive voters and big money, it isn’t surprising that Republicans believe they can block a range of popular reforms without paying a real political price.

What would change that? In Washington, the mantra is all about working together and compromising. In reality, the only option that Democrats have would be to tee up a series of fights on basic issues, fight on them repeatedly and vociferously, in the hope that they might begin to break through and let voters know just who is on which side.

That doesn’t mean a single effort to pass a higher minimum wage or enact tax hikes on multinationals to pay for universal preschool. It instead means raising the issues again and again, repeatedly forcing filibusters and votes in the Senate. And launching a real campaign against GOP obstruction in the House.

Movement Matters

But most politicians are uncomfortable carrying pitchforks. A populist agenda will gain traction not because it is popular but because people form mass, small “d” democratic movements to drive it.

The Populist movement in the late 19th century sent tens of thousands of lecturers throughout the country, drew millions of American’s into producer co-ops, laid out an agenda and forged a new party that challenged the corrupt politics of the day. Then politicians like Republican Theodore Roosevelt made themselves champions of some of the ideas, and carried them forward.

In the 1960s, the last great era of progressive reform, citizen movements — civil rights, anti-war, women’s, environmental — gave impetus to reforms, and leaders like President Lyndon B. Johnson became champions and drove them into law.

Citizen movements can challenge conventional wisdom. They can help voters understand that there is alternative. They provide hope, energy and direction. They can channel anger and spark optimism. The Occupy Wall Street movement provided a brief sense of that power. In the end, no matter how popular populist attitudes are, it will take a movement to give them force.

In the remarkable book “13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown,” Simon Johnson and James Kwak report on a meeting Obama had with 13 leading bankers after they blew up the economy and got bailed out. “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama told them. Only there were no pitchforks.

And without people mobilized to demand change, bankers can hire dragoons of lobbyists to dilute reforms, avoid prosecution and emerge bigger and more dangerous than ever.

Americans are in a populist temper. But they won’t find much help until they are mobilized in large numbers — and the powers-that-be begin to worry about the pitchforks.

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