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The U. S. Needs a New Populist Progressivism

Walter G. Moss: The U. S. needs a new populist progressivism. It will not so much pit the poor against the rich, but a broad rainbow coalition (including well-meaning Whites) and the common good against White special entitlement and special interests.
New Populist Progressivism

In a recent LA Progressive article I argued “Why Progressivism Should Be Our Nation's Political Philosophy.” One commentator objected that , “‘progressivism’ will not be enough. We cannot wait for our intellectual betters to come with ‘plans’ to save us. Ordinary people must become empowered to come up with their own solutions regarding their economic and political circumstances. We need class struggle —guided by the principles of democratic socialism —at work, on the streets, and on the campaign trail. The many must rise up like lions against the few to demand a better world.”

Having carefully considered that comment leads me to offer the following refinement: “The U. S. needs a new populist progressivism.” It will not so much pit the poor against the rich, but a broad rainbow coalition (including well-meaning Whites) and the common good against White special entitlement and special interests.

And the “populist progressivism” I champion is very different than the “populism” often championed by the right wing, including Trumpian “populists.” For they do not really represent the “people,” especially if by the “people” one means all well-meaning U. S. people, whatever their color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or place of birth.

The U. S. needs a new populist progressivism. It will not so much pit the poor against the rich, but a broad rainbow coalition (including well-meaning Whites) and the common good against White special entitlement and special interests.

Variety and diversity are one of life’s glories. Look at wondrous nature. A recent estimate puts the number of bird species alone at about 18,000. As the English poet—and gay Jesuit priest—Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote, “Glory be to God for dappled things . . . . All things counter, original, spare, strange.” Or as his contemporary, American abolitionist Frederick Douglass said in a Boston speech a century and a half ago, “our greatness and grandeur will be found in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds, and to men of no creeds.” Douglass recalled the U. S. mistreatment of both Native Americans and African Americans, but he also praised the contributions of the latter, as well as of various immigrant nationalities like the Irish and the German. In his day, there were great fears regarding Chinese immigrants, but he also thought that they could enrich our nation. “Do you ask, if I favor such immigration, I answer I would. Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would. Would you allow them to vote? I would. Would you allow them to hold office? I would.”

In that I detailed what I meant by a new progressivism in my earlier LA Progressive article, let me merely flesh out here the distinction between Trumpian populism and the populist progressivism I am advocating.

The present populism of the Trumpian right is primarily a White nationalism that thinks of its populism as based on its values and ideas and the belief that they have been exploited by the establishment, which can include mainstream media (except for Fox), urban professionals, and government officials and policies that have favored ethnic minorities and secularists over them. As George Saunders wrote in 2016, many Trump supporters suffer from what he calls “usurpation anxiety syndrome,” which he defines as “the feeling that one is, or is about to be, scooped, overrun, or taken advantage of by some Other with questionable intentions.” One expert on populism noted that such populists are dividers, they view society as “two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other.”

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Although the real Trump is much more of a narcissist than a populist, he adopted right-wing populism and began saying things like, “Part of my whole victory [in 2016] was that the men and women of this country who have been forgotten will never be forgotten again.”

Contrary to Trumpian populism, the populist progressivism I suggest would follow in the tradition of the coalition Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) built, but be even broader as foreshadowed by such thinkers as the the writers Carl Sandburg and Wendell Berry and the political scientist Robert Putnam.

A 2018 New York Times article was entitled “What Does a True Populism Look Like? It Looks Like the New Deal.” It insists that “by his day’s standards, and perhaps also today’s, Roosevelt was an economic populist.” In his biography of Franklin Roosevelt Robert Dallek notes that before FDR was elected in 1932 there was a deep cultural divide between urban and rural Americans, or modernists and fundamentalists.” Moreover, “rural folks who aggressively supported ideas and traditions largely in harmony with their established way of life” felt threatened by the growing dominance of the big cities. Many of these same folks especially distrusted all the southern and eastern European immigrants who had come to the cities before immigration was made more difficult in 1924. Traditionalist people in rural areas (and many small towns) who felt threatened by big cities and immigrants—sound like many Trump supporters?

But in a 1932 interview, FDR stated that what our country needed was “some one whose interests are not special but general, some one who can understand and treat the country as a whole. For . . . no interest, no class, no section, is either separate or supreme above the interests of all.” As Dallek writes, “If Roosevelt was to find the means to overcome the nation’s crisis, it would have to rest on shared support from every region and every ethnic, religious, and racial group.” And by promising—and delivering—real economic help to ordinary people FDR was able to build a new populist progressive coalition. In the November election he gained 57 percent of the popular vote and swept the Electoral College vote, 472 to 59; four years later he did even better gaining 61 vote of the popular vote and 523 votes in the Electoral College (carrying 46 out of 48 states, all but Maine and Vermont).

Still FDR’s populism was still far from perfect, as Robert Putnam points out, mainly because it left too many Black people still subject to southern segregation. The South still voted mainly Democratic in those days, partly because Roosevelt didn’t carry his populist progressive instincts far enough to alienate too many southern White racists.

More supportive of Black rights was one of FDR’s most ardent supporters, poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg. About him, his friend and later Democratic candidate for president, Adlai Stevenson, once said that he “is the one living man whose work and whose life epitomize the American dream.” Works such as his The Chicago Race Riots, July 1919 helped lead Roy Wilkens, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to refer to him as “a major prophet of Civil Rights.” In all sorts of other ways, he also demonstrated his populist progressivism including the hiring two Japanese-Americans to work for him during World War II, when in the same period over 100,000 other such Americans were being uprooted and sent to internment camps.

Another contemporary populist progressive is writer Wendell Berry, who in 2011 received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama. Known for his empathy with many small-town and rural people like his neighbors in Kentucky, he is also a pacifist and severe critic of racism and Trumpism (see my 2013 LAP essay, “Wendell Berry’s Reflections on Racism.”) Both Sandburg and Berry demonstrate that one can be empathetic toward struggling White people, even if they are sometimes misguided, while at the same decrying racism and Trumpist attitudes.

walter moss

One final point: members of a new broad-based populist progressive rainbow coalition do not all have to think alike. Diversity of opinion should be as welcome as diversity of ethnic groups and religious beliefs--or non-beliefs. Well-meaning conservatives like David Brooks and Michael Gerson have been severely critical of narrow Trumpian populism. They have worthwhile ideas to contribute to any national dialogue for how best to improve the common good, how best to move our country forward in a way that is truly progressive. In his 2015 Address to Congress, Pope Francis criticized ideological rigidity and urged dialogue. He was right.

Walter G. Moss