Time to Take on Sarah Palin, the Tea Party Screamers, and Their Corporate Masters With Real Populism
By Jim Hightower
If a political pollster came to my door and asked whether I consider myself a conservative or a liberal, I'd answer, "No."
Not to be cute--I have a bit of both in me--but because, like most Americans, my beliefs can't be squeezed into either of the tidy little boxes that the establishment provides.
Also, most of the big issues that our country faces defy right-left categorization. Take conservatism. It's a doctrine that classically embodies caution and...well, conservation. Yet the gushing and spreading Gulf Coast oil disaster was caused by people who proudly identify themselves as conservatives--including top executives of BP, Halliburton, and Transocean, as well as the top regulatory officials involved. However, they're not conservatives, they're anything-goes corporatists. Likewise, the five Supreme Court justices who recently enthroned corporate money over democracy (Lowdown, March 2010) are routinely labeled by the media as "conservative"--but their reckless rulings destroy our democratic values, rather than conserve them. Again, corporatists all.
As I've rambled through life, I've observed that the true political spectrum in our society does not range from right to left, but from top to bottom. This is how America's economic and political systems really shake out, with each of us located somewhere up or down that spectrum, mostly down. Right to left is political theory; top to bottom is the reality we actually experience in our lives every day--and the vast majority of Americans know that they're not even within shouting distance of the moneyed powers that rule from the top of both systems, whether those elites call themselves conservatives or liberals.
For me, the "ism" that best encompasses and addresses this reality is populism. What is it? Essentially, it's the continuation of America's democratic revolution. It encompasses and extends the creation of a government that is us. Instead of a "trickle down" approach to public policy, populism is solidly grounded in a "percolate up" philosophy that springs directly from America's founding principle of the Common Good.
Few people today call themselves populists, but I think most are. I'm not talking about the recent political outbursts by confused, used, and abused teabag ranters who've been organized by corporate front groups to spread a hatred of government. Rather, I mean the millions of ordinary Americans in every state who're battling the real power that's running roughshod over us: out-of-control corporations. With their oceans of money and their hired armies of lobbyists, lawyers, economists, consultants, and PR agents, these self-serving, autocratic entities operate from faraway executive suites and Washington backrooms to rig the economic and governmental rules so that they capture more and more of America's money and power.
The superwealthy speculators and executives who own and run these far-flung, private empires don't live in our zip codes, but their power reaches into all of our lives. During the past 30 years or so, they have quietly succeeded in untethering their ilk from our country's quaint notion that we're all in this together. They've elevated their private interests above the public interest and entrenched themselves as the preeminent decision makers over our economy, environment, and media--and our government. They pull the strings.
You can shout yourself red-faced at Congress critters you don't like and demand a government so small it'd fit in the back room of Billy Bob's Bait Shop & Sushi Stand--but you won't be touching the corporate and financial powers behind the throne. In fact, weak government is the political wet dream of corporate chieftains, which is why they're so ecstatic to have the Tea Party out front for them. But the real issue isn't small government; it's good government. (Can I get an amen from Gulf Coast fishing families on that!?)
This is where populists come in. You wouldn't know it from the corporate media, but in just about every town or city in our land you can find some groups or coalitions that, instead of merely shouting at politicians, have come together to find their way around, over, or through the blockage that big money has put in the way of their democratic aspirations. Also, in the process of organizing, strategizing, and mobilizing, these groups are building relationships and community, creating something positive from a negative.
This is the historic, truly democratic, grassroots populism of workaday folks who strive (and, more often than not, succeed) to empower themselves to take charge economically as well as politically.
With the rebellious spirit and sense of hope that have defined America from the start, these populists are directly challenging the plutocratic order that reigns over us. This populism is unabashedly a class movement--one that seeks not merely to break the iron grip that centralized corporate power has on our country, but also to build cooperative democratic structures so that ordinary people--not moneyed interests--define and control our country's economic and political possibilities.
It's necessary to restate the solid principles of populism and reassert its true spirit because both are now being subverted and severely perverted by corporate manipulators and a careless media establishment. To these debasers of the language, any politicos or pundits who tap into any level of popular anger (toward Obama, liberals, the IRS, poor people, unions, gays, immigrants, Hollywood, community organizers, environmentalists, et al.) get a peel-off "populist" label slapped onto their lapels--even when their populist pose is funded by and operates as a front for one or another corporate interest. That's not populism; it's rank hucksterism, disguising plutocrats as champions of the people.
Witness Sarah Palin, whose political flowering was induced by the rich stimulant of corporate money and who has now been turned into an overnight multimillionaire by agreeing to serve as the political face and voice for such corporate barons as Rupert Murdoch. Palin's chief function is to rally the teabag faithful (who are less than 20% of the public) into a cacophonous, furious, and ludicrous defense of the domineering power of--guess who?--corporate barons.
Yet, few in the media peek behind her facade. After hearing Palin loyally denounce the unmitigated evil of government at a recent Tea Party convention, for example, Washington Post columnist David Broder, the eminent establishmentarian, gushed about her "pitch-perfect populism."
Even worse than the media's misapplication of the label is its desperate determination to marginalize what is actually a venerable and historic movement as nothing more than assorted gaggles of grumps and quacks. George Will, the effete conservative commentator, sniffed in a February column that populism is "a celebration of intellectual ordinariness." Then he dismissed its political importance with a sweeping declaration that populism "always wanes because it never seems serious as a solution."
Perhaps George had his signature bowtie too tightly tied that day, cutting off the flow of blood to his memory cells. Otherwise, someone of his intellectual extraordinariness would have recalled that the populists of the 1880s were the ones who formed the first U.S. political party to propose and push such serious solutions as women's suffrage; wage protections and an eight-hour day for labor; direct election of U.S. senators by the people; elimination of poll taxes and literacy tests for voting; corralling the power of lobbyists; civil-service laws; pensions for veterans; a graduated income tax; elimination of all subsidies to private corporations; outlawing the Pinkterton system of corporate mercenaries to bust unions; and preserving America's natural resources from being monopolized for speculative purposes.
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