The Need for a New Populism

Populism has gained the attention of the voting public, even if it’s poorly understood.  Trump’s campaign rhetoric pulls out every propaganda cliché associated with populist appeals, and it has worked to capture the loyalty of what is loosely referred to as the tea party movement and fellow travelers.  At the core of its many manifestations, populism lifts up the interests of alienated members of society through political organization to attack whatever is believed to prevent them from enjoying the benefits of social and economic success.  The political face of populism has ebbed and flowed over the centuries, usually forcing the nation to recognize serious problems of equity and justice, and influencing changes in public policy.  Populist movements have often been able to elect small cadres of representatives to congress where they become thorns in the side of congressional leadership, but they’ve never been more than a vocal minority.  Not since Andrew Jackson has a president openly identified with them.  Populist leaders, subsumed under Trump’s more fascist version (Trumpism), have veered in a different direction from its predecessors.  They’ve become the foundation for a real and present danger to our democracy, oddly destructive of working class issues they claim to defend.  Nevertheless, the alienation to which they give voice is real, and moderate and progressive political forces need to recognize and respond to it in pragmatic, understandable ways.
Trump’s response is an imaginary restoration of a steel and coal fueled industrial economy, unencumbered by regulation, that once existed in the make believe world of nostalgia, even if it means hurting other, more important, sectors of the economy from high tech to agriculture.  He threatens easily fought and won trade wars to protect dying industries of marginal importance to the economic future of the country.  For those of us in more rural areas, he’s invited trading partner retaliation aimed at the heart of agricultural America.  Vague promises to protect farmers with federal welfare dollars have all the credulity of a Trump wedding vow.  His education secretary is intent on undermining public education, the very source of hope for the future of ordinary people.  His EPA administrator is trying to dismantle regulations protecting the most vulnerable elements of the environment, endangering the most vulnerable members of society.  His treasury secretary wants to return banking to robber baron status, and his HUD secretary has no idea what’s going on.  “Making America Great Again” has become a recipe for making America a second rate floundering has been of a once great country wondering why other nations no longer take it seriously as a world leader.
Curiously, Trump managed to tag his preposterous ideas (no one could call them an agenda) to a legitimate concern: the growing alienation of large sectors of the population epitomized by, but not limited to, the white working class who live in towns and cities across the heartland: a mythical place somewhere west of the Appalachians and east of the Cascades.  It may not be a place, but it is a presence in the minds of people who feel alienated from economic well being and denigrated by educated elites.  They can be anywhere, even in liberal cities on the coasts.  
It’s not simply a matter of decades of growing economic inequality, or the fears of working class whites that they’re soon to become just one more minority among a nation of minorities.  People of color have long endured what working class whites fear is happening to them, and one cannot avoid the truth that tea party Trumpism caters to white anxieties with little regard for for the historical record of systemic racism affecting others.  It can be tempting to react to that by working harder to tackle the problem of racism, but as important as that is, meeting Trumpism head on requires a different strategy.
A moderate/progressive alternative to Trumpism must focus on the reality that the value of labor is no longer respected by corporate and economic policy leaders; therefore they no longer recognize the dignity of laborers as persons worthy of respect.  People of color have known that for a long time, but it’s a new thing for whites.  Moreover, white collar labor, well into middle management, is also sliding into that pit.  

Progressives and moderates must find ways to restore the value of labor and dignity of laborers.  But first, how did we get to such a place?
The nation was lulled into complacency by thirty years of American economic hegemony following WWII that gave us undisputed world economic leadership, and created an expectation that each generation (of white men) would be better off than the one before it, and that any (white male) person could pull himself into the middle class through honest hard work.  It was an era unique in American history.  It wasn’t always that way, and we are slipping back to a modern version of former prevailing conditions closer to the historic norm.
During the industrial revolution, and for decades after, human labor was a mere commodity.  No one laborer was worth much.  The supply was abundant, so treating humans as easily replaceable parts to the machine was the norm.  The Homestead Acts opened millions of newly “liberated” land to anyone who could prove up an operating farm.  It gave opportunity to many, but it was also a way to turn surplus people clogging up the machinery of business into potential customers and suppliers.  For good or for ill, people were still replaceable parts, in the factory or on the farm.  

It wasn’t only greedy robber barons who had that view.  Consider the “scientific management” of Taylorism, the work of Fredrick W. Taylor (1856-1915) who, more or less, invented industrial engineering to maximize production efficiency by treating labor as one more cog in an impersonal machine.  Yes, workers were expected to know what they were doing and work hard, but working efficiently was better yet, and efficiency ruled.  Never mind social and emotional needs; time and motion studies would reveal the most efficient way to get the most out of labor by treating them as just another part of the machinery.  If psychology was an applicable tool, B.F. Skinner could explain how to use it to engineer the right kind of obediently efficient worker.
Liberal thinkers, the social gospel, the growing power of unions were forces that demanded more respect for the dignity of human labor, but it took a couple of world wars for them to get enough leverage to bring real social and economic opportunity to the working class.  It didn’t mean giving up on efficiency, for which we are grateful, since technological advancements have brought us the good things we enjoy today.  In the post WWII era, labor was highly valued, even if only as the enemy of management.  But in time big unions overplayed their hands, new technologies reduced the need for workers,  and right to work laws contributed to the decline of union membership and power.  Combined with parallel declines in the importance and number of small family farms, and the small towns they supported, the social value and dignity of labor as a whole declined.  In recent years it has been a decline extending far into white collar jobs that used to be a way out of the blue collar working class.
How might we go about restoring value to labor and dignity to laborers?  It won’t be easy.  As one who long championed right to work laws, I now believe they need to go.  There is a role for unions – that don’t overplay their hands.  As one union buff has put it, if you think being forced to pay union dues is unfair, how do you feel about being forced to take whatever management dictates?  As reports begin to surface, it appears that the loudly touted tax reform bill has not resulted in higher pay for workers, but in stock buybacks, small one time bonuses for the masses, a few scholarship programs in lieu of higher pay, and more cash in the pockets of top management.  Unions can be an effective counteracting force, but not when right to work laws emasculate them.
Restoring a high marginal rate on the top income brackets would eliminate the incentive to pay super salaries in the tens of millions.  Combined with other changes, a high marginal rate could stimulate higher wages at lower levels, and it would certainly reverse the current trend toward increasing income inequality.   
Generous funding for public education from preschool through at least two years of community college is essential.  Longer school years, teaching to educate not to test, placing equal value on liberal arts and technology, highly valuing vocational education, and making civics, including history, a requirement, are steps requiring federal leadership and broad state support.  We need to be educating a nation, not a town or neighborhood.  If private schools have a role, they have to engage cooperatively with national expectations, not as an excuse for sectarian indoctrination.  Otherwise, they could exist as auxiliaries to public education, but not as replacements. 

That’s a start.  You might have some ideas of your own.  My more conservative friends, of course, are likely to begin singing verses of “Anything but Socialism,” to which I say, learn another song.  We need policies to lead our democratic constitutional republic through the 21st century (not the 19th) toward greater fulfillment of the American Dream we have all cherished.    

Leave a Reply