Monday, December 17, 2007

The Sleepers: Progressivism vs. Populism

by Stuart Noble

Back in September I predicted John Edwards as my dark horse pick to win the Democratic nomination. I wanted to point you to this month's cover story on Newsweek titled, The Sleeper. The article provides some details about Edwards' working class roots and his early activism for social justice. After reading the article I got to thinking more about where and how the Edwards' candidacy fits within US political traditions. Cartoon by Mark Hurwitt

I've been incredibly excited about this presidential election cycle not only as an opportunity for renewal after the Bush years but as a moment in which several political movements are coalescing around the different candidates. To clarify, the American "two-party system" is really made up of several political factions within the "big tent" political parties. I've been paying particular attention to the movements on the left side of the spectrum. The country is "moving" left as a whole. This is partially a repudiation of Bush but also a general rejection of the entire modern conservative ideology. See for example David Nye 's recent article, The Bush Economy. For more background see Joseph E. Stiglitz's article, The Economic Consequences of Mr. Bush. We see this widespread dissatisfaction as well within the Republican camp with major defections from the party like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the strong challenges from the Libertarian Ron Paul and conservative populist Mike Huckabee.

If the Republican coalition is collapsing then what will the new ruling coalition look like?

It's becoming increasingly probable that the next president will be a Democrat, with a Democratic House and Senate. The current ruling Democratic power structure is made up of a coalition of new Southern "Dixiecrats," traditional New England liberals, and corporate democrats (think Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council). Progressives, populists and social democrats have been on the margins since the 70's. The current Democratic leadership is a far cry from the Leftist policies of the 60's or the New Dealers which created one of the most prosperous middle class economies ever. However, the overwhelming amount of grassroots activism over the last decade has been driven by these more Leftist ideologies which are returning to mainstream conversations about the future of American government.

Much of this activity has been aided by creative appropriations of internet technologies. The explosion of blogging and other social media has reinvigorated the democratic public sphere. Enter John Edwards. His candidacy represents a legitimate populist challenge to the status quo. He's essentially tried to create a coalition of progressives and populists. The fact that Iowa remains essentially a three way tie is evidence of Edwards' strong populist support. But the "new new Left" overall is divided about Edwards. Edwards is clearly the populist candidate but he has thus far been unable to bring in significant numbers of progressives. While he polls the highest amongst progressives online, he remains a second choice among the creative class's leading voices.

Enter Barack Obama. He is clearly the candidate of choice among the "creative classes." He represents the values of cosmopolitan middle class technocrats. In keeping with a progressive ideology, they are often skeptical, and at times downright uncomfortable with "the masses." Lawrence Lessig, who recently endorsed Obama typifies this demographic. See Obama's policy paper, Connecting and Empowering all Americans Through Technology and Innovation. Edwards also has some strong progressive proposals on communications and environmental technological and economic development but Obama is the principal benefactor of technocratic support.

While the end goals of progressivism and populism are often the same, they do not stem from the same ideology. A very good description of the tensions between populist and progressive attitudes can be found in Jack Balkin's article, "Populism and Progressivism as Constitutional Categories."

By "populism" and "progressivism," I mean to invoke the spirit of two successive reform movements in American history, the first primarily agrarian and the second urban.(26) Despite their differences, progressivism and populism had many similarities, so much so in fact that the two are easily confused. Many of the reforms advocated by populists in the late nineteenth century -- for example, direct election of senators, the eight-hour day, graduated income taxation, and currency reform -- were put in place by progressives in the early twentieth century, albeit for somewhat different reasons.(27) Thus, although I am particularly interested in the ways in which populism and progressivism diverge, the two should not be seen as diametrically opposed. They were and are often uneasy allies, but allies they have been nevertheless. Moreover, when I speak of "populism" and "progressivism" today, I am necessarily extrapolating from events in American history to offer principles that might help us understand trends in contemporary political debates. This is an exercise in the description of ideal types; few people can be said to match the portraits I offer in all respects.(28)

Had Obama not been in the race, Edwards most likely would have successfully created a united Progressive-Populist coalition. There is some movement in that direction as some Progressives are taking a second look at Obama and Edwards. Even the Lessig endorsement of Obama praises Edwards basically as a strong second choice.

So what about Hillary Clinton? Nationally she still polls as the leading front runner. However, her support tends to be wide and shallow as opposed to the deep grassroots support of Edwards and Obama. She's the DC insider representing the corporate democrats. Much like her husband, she pushes for both social liberal policies domestically and pro-corporate trade policies internationally. She's the most hawkish of any of the Democratic candidates. She would govern in the tradition of her husband's neo-liberal framework which attaches heavily to Leftist identity politics like gender and gay/lesbian issues while promoting decidedly pro-corporatist agendas. After all, it was the Clinton administration which promoted and successfully led the charge for NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (which essentially deregulated the media leading to further monopolization and consolidation). These two issues remain the most contentious policy challenges for Populists and Progressives respectively.

Much of both the new progressive and populist movement activism is focused on pulling the party away from identity politics and back towards a more classic class struggle based on economic justice. This is not to say that identity politics won't play a role however. Clinton is banking on female support, Obama on the African-American community as a swing block and Edwards directly courts white Southern and rural males.

While progressives and populists represent different world views and attract different demographics, they are moving in the same direction guided by both a repudiation of the neo-conservative economic model and a rejection of Leftist identity politics as the general framework for Democratic coalition building. The question for 2008 is whether they will manage to form a national coalition around one candidate or will they cancel each other out, allowing the less popular "centrist" her window to victory? See Paul Loeb's article, Why progressives don't want Hillary.

In the grand scheme of things, a Hillary president (assuming she can win the general election) may not be of critical importance to the Progressive/Populist movements. There are other factors at play and although Bush/Cheney have been re-building the imperial presidency, the other branches may re-assert their power and influence with an infusion of Leftist momentum. Furthermore, progressives are winning local and statewide elections all across the country and this momentum looks to continue. Several states previously considered "red" have seen demographic changes pushing them into a "bluer" electorate. Most compelling of all perhaps is the thesis of John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, The Emerging Democratic Majority. The basic premise is that a permanent demographic shift is occurring which favors Democratic ideals. Link.
This new postindustrial politics is not defined by states but by metropolitan regions within states. These postindustrial metropolises, which we call "ideopolises," are the breeding ground for the new Democratic majority. Insofar as these areas are not confined to the Northeast, far West, and upper Midwest but are found also in the South and Southwest, the Democrats have a chance to build a large majority and to rewrite today's political map. By 2008, Democrats could enjoy an electoral base of 332 electoral votes, many more than they need for a majority, while holding a competitive position in a number of additional states that might swell that majority.

See also this earlier post, Democrats Look West, which explores the ideology of the cosmopolitan progressive class. However, Judis and Teixeira only tell half the demographic story. There's the enormous populist shift as well, which while partially nativist, also includes the growing hispanic population. SEIU, the largest union in the country, is a key player in bringing this demographic into the Democratic fold.

So there are basically three factions competing for the leadership position in a new Democratic majority; Populist, Progressive, and Neo-Liberal. While we can't be certain about the outcome of the 2008 election, a Progressive-Populist revival will most likely continue to shape the political climate of the next generation.