Populist Revolution? How a Bold New Voter Coalition Can Reshape the Nation

By Marshall Auerback
Cross-Posted from AlterNet.org

Minorities, independent women, gays, working-class white voters, and younger people overcame through high turnout a fierce social conservative block.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

Tuesday’s election will be regarded as a pivotal one in US history. For 30 years the top 1 percent has manipulated the masses to vote against their own interests. It was able to do that because the feelings of the white middle and lower classes about social issues overwhelmed their economic considerations.

But something interesting happened this year: high levels of minority and young voter turnout, together with an increased Obama-tilt among all voters earning less than $50,000 a year, routed the GOP. In one sense, the election represents the triumph of the Reverend Jesse Jackson and his “Rainbow Coalition.” The Reverend Jackson was the first serious challenge of a black man for the presidency, and with his Rainbow Coalition, he ran for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and in 1988, with a platform that represented an anthology of progressive ideas from the 1960s. He attracted a large number of supporters, many of them from the white working-class. Each time his movement looked like it was gaining electoral traction, the Democratic Party establishment would invariably mobilize against him and elect feeble white liberals – Mondale and Dukakis – who plummeted to defeat by Reagan and George Bush Sr.

It would be absurd to suggest that today’s Wall Street-dominated Democratic Party is the natural outgrowth of this coalition. That said, Jackson provided the template on how to counter the onslaught of conservative, big money politics (which helped to produce the Reagan presidency). It was Jackson, after all, who first devoted considerable resources toward increasing black registration for national elections, a pattern increasingly being replicated for other minority blocs, which are soon likely to become the majority as we move toward an increased “browning” of America. But Jackson’s appeal went beyond race, as he was the first to see the value of building a progressive coalition which espoused many of the ideas now articulated by groups such as Occupy Wall Street, notably income inequality and the taboo subject of class. Jackson knew that you can’t build an effective coalition around identity politics. You have to bring people together through their shared economic interest.

This populist focus was best illustrated during Jackson’s visit to Camp Solidarity in Virginia in the late 1980s , meeting largely white miners who were in the midst of the historic Pittston strike:

“Rich Trumka, then president of the United Mine Workers, told them, ‘Y’all probably wondering why Jesse Jackson is here. Last year we were told to be scared of him. And this year the folks we gave our money to are nowhere to be seen. So I want you to ask yourselves, Which would you rather have, a black friend or a white enemy?’

“It was a question other Southern white trade unionists had raised during the campaigns with their memberships, many of them Reagan Democrats. As elsewhere, the miners listened and responded enthusiastically. Jackson always maintained that a progressive candidate could reach such Democrats with straight talk, empathy, class-angled economics and an appeal to common human values–what veteran activist Anne Braden, who’d organized Rainbow rallies in Appalachia that drew thousands of poor white nonvoters or registered Republicans, called ‘appealing to the best instincts of Southern whites as opposed to the worst, which is what Bill Clinton played to.’”

Braden could very well have added that this is the group to which the GOP has played to for the past 50 years, since the days of Richard Nixon.

If this had been a squeaker maybe one couldn’t draw conclusions. But the new coalition of Democrats comprised of minorities, independent women, gays, working-class white voters, and younger people in general overcame through high turnout an increasingly threatened and fierce social conservative block. The demographics and trends in cultural change will just keep tipping the electorate toward the new coalition. Their positions are as deep-seated as those of the social conservatives. Obama and the Democrats did this with the considerable headwind of 8 percent unemployment.

What this means is that the coalition of the top 1 percent and the social conservatives that would go with them even though it hurt them economically is now in relative decline. Unlike the 1984 and 1988 campaigns of Jackson, this time the progressive coalition won. True, it would be unrealistic to suggest that President Obama is the avatar of this new movement, but his operation was able to surmount people like the Koch brothers who no longer have a sufficient bloc of fools they can manipulate to achieve their ends. They had on their side the Supreme Court decision of Citizens United . They had 8 percent unemployment. They had a presentable pathological liar who had no compunction about saying anything to try and fool the white electorate to keep acting against their own interests.

People just do not understand that this infernal and inherently contradictory GOP coalition was what the Republicans needed to sustain their tenuous grip on power. It now seems that a new coalition from the broad masses has emerged that can out-vote them even with the unprecedented money the other side had. Witness the success of progressives such as Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio, and Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and all of the big money mobilized against them. And this coalition will gain increasing relative strength as people age. This election looks like the end of the GOP revival that goes back to Reagan that has led to the skewing income distribution and the financial capitalism that has replaced efficient goods markets with corrupt financial speculation.

One can criticize Obama for being too much of a compromiser, which I think he is. And in many respects, this election was like eating at a restaurant where you’ve got no good choices on the menu, and you just take the least unappetizing main course instead of one which will give you food poisoning. It is also the case that much of the turnout was a product of fear, rather than enthusiasm: blacks infuriated by the GOP’s repeated voter suppression schemes, slapped down in the Florida and Pennsylvania courts, Hispanics annoyed by the Republicans’ visceral hostility to immigrants and the championing of storm trooper law enforcement tactics by the likes of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and women angered by repeated GOP attempts to colonize their bodies.

That said, it took a very clever and effective politician to pull it off with the logistical expertise to mobilize large elements of the coalition pursued by Jackson. Someone less politically skilled than Barack Obama would have lost. The dying GOP coalition would have come into power and done as much damage as they could do frustrate the new majority. The Supreme Court would have been the greatest casualty because they would have packed it with social conservatives who would have placed great roadblocks to the objectives of the new coalition destined to eventually take political power.

There is no doubt that the short term is still problematic. One can almost certainly expect to see the return of “Mr. Grand Bargain,” as the Democrats offer up on a silver platter their signature social achievements of the last century, Social Security and Medicare. But there are straws in the wind that suggest this is a last gasp of the old neo-liberal Washington consensus, as opposed to a harbinger of yet more of the same.

Consider what happened in California on Tuesday. Against the usual moneyed interests, the state passed Proposition 30, so for the first time that California was able to get past the intense financial lobbying that usually occurs during these referenda. Instead, it followed the advice of Governor Jerry Brown and passed a tax increase to increase funding for public education. Remember, California used to have the best public school system in the country until it was gutted by Prop 13. And that too was a harbinger of what was to follow.

Even better news is that the Democrats won super majorities in both houses of the California legislature. If this holds, which it seems to be doing, the Republicans can no longer keep the state in dysfunction with a one-third-plus-one vote. And California almost always points the way to the future. Prop 13 was the start of this neo-liberal anti-government crusade.

So this could very well set the stage for a new kind of future for the country some 30 years after Jesse Jackson began his progressive crusade.

17 Responses to Populist Revolution? How a Bold New Voter Coalition Can Reshape the Nation

  1. The two big stories of the election are the defeat of the billionaires’ ad-blitz money campaigns and the techno-organizational superiority of Obama’s campaign. Republicans will probably study, and seek to neutralize, the latter. But they obviously have no idea how to react to the former. The U.S. now resembles much of Latin America in this way – the monied elites control all sides of the media narrative. But the masses have learned to show for it the contempt that it deserves – and especially on election day. This is a vital step in the maturation process of the electoral coalition here described.

    And there is one thing not even the richest plutocrat can buy – the “Mute” button on our collective remote-control.

  2. Quite a lot of optimism in this post that I’m not sure I share, but the particulars of the grand “bargain” will be a good gauge of where we are right now politically. To me Obama still represents the FIRE sector lock stock and barrel, the single largest deterrent to progress in our country right now.

  3. I agree with most of your analysis Marshall, and appreciate you putting it in a historical perspective that ties it back to Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition efforts. But, given the opportunity and risks in front of us related to the “Fiscal Cliff” and the deficit-related debate, I think you may be too quickly dismisssing “Mr. Grand Bargain” as “a last gasp of the old neo-liberal Washington consensus.” While I hope you’re right, I think the MMT community now has (and should embrace) a window of opportunity to help ensure that “Mr. Grand Bargain” doesn’t throw the U.S. and global economies into another deep recession.

    This ties into some other recent posts and comment threads here at NEP, in which some of us have discussed the value of a public communication strategy that not only explains MMT’s core principles, but also ties it more explicitly to important progressive issues (e.g., not only to jobs and economic growth, but also climate change, infrastructure upgrades, healthcare and education reform, etc.), and that also leverages the energy and talent of the expanding community of MMT supporters.

    In my view, the timeliness of moving in this direction is underscored by your post, which highlights the fundamentally progressive demographic and political shifts that (thankfully) seem to be underway, but also still face headwinds that are not likely to disappear anytime soon. In addition to the still-Republican-controlled House, one of those headwinds is the apparently strong influence of deficit-hawks in the Obama administration, and D.C. policy circles in general.

    In recent NEP posts Joe Firestone and Michael Hoexter have both taken up the issue of what’s really “fiscally responsible” from an MMT perspective, while J. D. Alt has discussed MMT’s significance in terms of developing public policies that stimulate the “altruistic” gene vs. those that stimulate the “selfish” gene. One of J.D.’s key points is that an MMT-informed economic perspective is inherently more conducive to expression of the “altruistic” gene and the message that “we’re all in this together” than is an economic perspective grounded in deficit fears and related visions of dollar-scarcity.

    In comments responding to these posts I suggested that we mobilize a collective effort within the NEP/MMT community, in cooperation with the broader progressive community, to increase the potency and clarify the relevance and timeliness of MMT messaging.

    Joe Firestone’s two recent posts reflect a move in that direction. After getting feedback on his first draft of an “MMT Fiscal Responsibility Narrative” from various online communities (NEP, Correntewire, FireDogLake, DailyKos, and ourfuture.org), Joe has just posted a revised draft that’s already attracting further feedback.

    This morning I was thinking more about this and found myself remembering when, as a grad student many years ago, I spent a lot of time editing op-ed pieces by a professor who was a Russian émigré. Most of his writing was intended to help American policymakers and citizens understand the important, exciting but confusing developments then underway in the Soviet Union (perestroika and glasnost under Gorbachev). The work editing was challenging (English was his second language and word-length limits were always tight), but gratifying–though most of his op-ed submissions were never published, we did get a handful published in major U.S. newspapers, including (if I remember correctly) the NYT, the WSJ and the LA Times.

    I bring this up because I think what’s going on in the U.S. (and the world) right now is of comparable import to what was going on back then in the Soviet Union. And I believe that an understanding of MMT within the citizenry and policymaking community has the potential to turbocharge the political transition you describe so inspiringly in your post, and which so many Americans are now sensing.

    With all this in mind, I’d suggest that the MMT community mobilize a concerted effort to get pro-MMT op-ed pieces published in major U.S. newspapers. These would not only explain how MMT is an accurate description of how the monetary system works, but also make a strong case that MMT provides a strong foundation for a truly “responsible” approach to fiscal policy, and (importantly, in the wake of the election) that its application will enable our nation to unleash its abundant human, natural and technological resources in the service of universal prosperity, without unduly triggering what J.D. Alt described as the “selfish” gene.

    I think this message, once understood, will be enthusiastically embraced by progressives currently swimming against a fiscal policy tide driven by deficit fears. I also believe it has real potential to further expand the ranks of today’s “rainbow coalition,” since an understanding of MMT can help free all citizens (regardless of economic or ethnic status), political leaders and progressive policy advocates from excessive reliance on an “us vs. them” approach to economic policy. While this kind of polarized perspective has its place in policy debates, I believe it will be intellectually and emotionally liberating and politically useful for progressives to NOT HAVE TO present their policy proposals within a win-lose, deficit-fear-driven policy context.

    I’d suggest that these op-ed pieces by written mainly by leading MMT thinkers who have a strong combination of substantive, credentialed and reputational credibility, as well a willingness to deal with the kind of attacks they may trigger. But I’d also suggest that we build on Joe’s recent “crowdsourcing” experiment, by soliciting feedback from the broader MMT community before submitting final drafts to newspapers and other mainstream outlets.

  4. “This election looks like the end of the GOP revival that goes back to Reagan that has led to the skewing income distribution and the financial capitalism that has replaced efficient goods markets with corrupt financial speculation.”

    President Obama continued this same course during his first 4 years. I am skeptical he will change it much during his second term.

  5. The ‘fiscal cliff’ and the whole deficit/cut SS,Medicare debate will be the first battle.

  6. Smart money world wide is buying gold. Wonder why? Do you believe in the tooth fairy and paper has value? Many have doubts these days.

  7. The Dork of Cork.

    WTF was that !

    Disturbing really , I mean I would not have voted for Mitt and his crew if I were a American as I think they are freaks but Jesus.
    We got over those Clinton era happy clappy years have we not ?

  8. Hi Marshall, Very well done piece and very hopeful. Question: wasn’t the person who first envisioned a rainbow coalition around class interests the Reverend Martin Luther King; and didn’t Jesse take over his idea. I don’t mean to diminish Jesse Jackson’s efforts which were monumental, but just to give credit where it is due.

  9. I wish I could share in this. But I can’t.

    Obama is the more effective evil put there to deliver the remains of the new deal to the plutocrats in my estimation.

    If they’d really wanted a Republican in charge they’d have found 2 less clownish figures than Romney and Ryan. These guys were almost unelectable in their foolishness and inanity on social issues.

    “Didn’t Vote” won the numbers by the way.

  10. Before getting too giddy, please remember O was running against an obsession with lady parts and self-deportation. Could be a little tougher next time. Respect and amnesty could turn it all around.

    Who knows, Jeb could run with Ashley Judd and support a JG.

    • But you know, if that happened, it would mean MMT has broken through and neoliberalism has been defeated. If the democrats let themselves be outflanked like that, maybe they deserve to meet the dust bin.

  11. So what’s our plan? Can we get a congressional hearing about the “fiscal cliff” for our champions to speak at? Are they taking submissions?

  12. Is it really worth for american progressives to hang on to the democratic party? You have now 4 years time to create a new party and dump democrats. Perhaps “Progressive People’s Party” or something. Like in Europe, the so called “left” is more a hindrance than a possibility.

  13. “Is it really worth for american progressives to hang on to the democratic party? You have now 4 years time to create a new party and dump democrats. Perhaps “Progressive People’s Party” or something. Like in Europe, the so called “left” is more a hindrance than a possibility.”

    It worked for the Tea Party/fundies and the Republican party. Not that their takeover is any better for the country or anything, but one of the takeaways of the last four years (and the 2010/2012 Senate elections) is that the strict-plutocrat wing of the Republican party is no longer in control.

    I’m very much enjoying the spectacle of watching the plutocrats and their Very Serious People shills squirm over this post-election week as they realize just who is really the lion and who is really the ass. Of course it’s tempered by the realization that instead of fighting the Southern aristocracy we’re going to be fighting the Know Nothings. But hey, let’s have fun while it lasts.