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Twenty-First Century Populism

(Image: Democracy Collaborative)

Part of the Series

This “Chapter Nineteen” is the twenty-first part of Truthout’s continuing series of excerpts from Gar Alperovitz’s “America beyond Capitalism.”

This is an exclusive Truthout series from political economist and author Gar Alperovitz. We are publishing weekly installments of the new edition of “America Beyond Capitalism,” a visionary book first published in 2005, whose time has come. Donate to Truthout and receive a free copy.

The various present impediments to progressive reform are likely to foster a radicalized politics, a twenty-first century populism that promises individual fulfillment in the context of community.

We may stand back from these various considerations to reflect upon a larger analytic point. The difficulties facing progressive strategies did not stem simply from the election of George Bush or from the massive and growing fiscal difficulties that his time in office produced. We are entering an era in which systemic problems are slowly coming ever more forcefully into play. In the first instance the deeper challenges involve the decay of political-economic forces that once helped maintain a modicum of balance in the American system.

For much of the twentieth century organized labor provided powerful backing for progressive politics in general, and for strategies aimed at securing gains for Americans not among the upper ranks of society in particular. Even allowing for the continued importance of unions, this is no longer true. With corporate power increasing as labor declines, and with upper-middle-class suburban-based economic power firmly entrenched, the politics of the twenty-first century will be very different from that which many Americans once took for granted.

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One result is that the fundamental stance of social democracy in general, and American liberalism in particular, will continue to come under increasing pressure. A second result is that traditional ameliorative strategies must lose force as time goes on. A third result is that larger, more fundamental institutional issues are likely to become increasingly obvious – and ultimately unavoidable.

History reminds us that the faltering of one form of change is rarely the end of all forms of change. It is commonly observed that when reform is blocked, a radicalization of politics often occurs. Targets of political attack become more sharply focused, anger increases, moderate tactics are abandoned, often violence explodes. We know the scenario – sometimes successful (as, for instance, in the American Revolution); sometimes not (as, for instance, in the radical Southern challenge to the Union that led to the Civil War).

What the situational logic of the emerging context suggests is a new twenty-first-century possibility – one related to, but also different from, the radicalization option. The beginning point is not the total blockage of traditional progressive strategy but a substantial and continual fading away of its promise. Moreover, the nation is extremely rich, meaning that desperation levels are unlikely to reach revolutionary levels (except among tiny groups) or give rise to major – as opposed to occasional – violence.

Something appears likely to “give,” but the traditional posture, tone, and style of reform no longer offer sufficient meaning or hope to mobilize the energies needed for major change. A likely result is the emergence of an intermediate position that involves a more angry, militant, and aggressive (but not revolutionary or necessarily violent) style of politics, on the one hand, and a more aggressively and narrowly focused targeting of politics, on the other.

The term “twenty-first-century populism” points to far more than the mere rhetorical framing of issues implied in some usages. Indeed, it designates a specific and historically distinct strategic arrangement of groups and a distinct and considered understanding of the sharpening of issues required both to mobilize effective long-term political activity and to blunt inevitable elite-driven efforts to divide and conquer those striving for reform.

The politics of the intermediate form of change is inherently hospitable to the simultaneous and converging development of new Pluralist Commonwealth wealth-holding strategies and principles. Indeed, it requires the kinds of new economic approaches that, as we have seen, are now developing in all parts of the country. The new politics is thus also likely to accelerate and nurture the further development of practical system-shifting institutional efforts.

The overall arc of development also offers the promise of new ways to undergird individual choice – and the time and security to exercise such choice creatively and in the context of communities sustained by new political-economic strategies. It is not, accordingly, simply about social and economic matters or systemic change writ large. It is about individual fulfillment in the context of community.

Historian Lawrence Goodwyn’s studies of nineteenth-century populism suggest the emerging changes may offer one additional possibility. Individuals who come together to demand a new way forward, in so doing, may well also rebuild the foundations of “unintimidated self-respect . . . the one essential ingredient of an authentic mass democracy.”

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