Against the Manipulation of Populism by Elitism
Iowa City, IA, October 14, 2011. The formerly left Christopher Hitchens once usefully described “the essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism.” The manipulation of populism by elitism – the cloaking of plutocratic agendas, of service to the rich and powerful, in the false rebels’ clothing of popular rebellion; the hidden and unelected dictatorship of money masquerading in the dress of the common people. “That elite is most successful,” Hitchens added in his study of the corporate-neoliberal Bill Clinton presidency:
“which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most ‘in touch’ with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of public opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently ‘elitist.’ It is no great distance from Huey Long’s robust cry of ‘Every man a king’ to the insipid ‘inclusiveness’ of [Bill Clinton’s slogan] ‘Putting People First,’ but the smarter elite managers have learned in the interlude that solid, measurable pledges have to be distinguished by a reserve’ tag that earmarks them for the bankrollers and backers.”
The Democrats’ Violin
In the narrow American political system, the Democratic Party is perhaps best equipped and most experienced when it comes to playing the deceptive, co-optive, and system-sustaining role that Hitchens (writing about a Democratic president) observed. It has long been the Democrats’ job to police and define the leftmost parameters of acceptable political debate. For the last century it has (in the words of the Marxist political analyst Lance Selfa) been their assignment to play “the role of shock absorber, trying to head off and co-opt restive [and potentially Left] segments of the electorate” by posing as “the party of the people.” The Democrats performed this critical system-preserving, change-maintaining function in relation to the agrarian populist insurgency of the 1890s, the working-class rebellion of the 1930s and 1940s, and the antiwar, civil rights, anti-poverty, ecology, and feminist and gay rights movements during and since the 1960s and early 1970s (For an excellent survey, see Lance Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History, [ Haymarket, 2008], 87-125).
The Democratic Party, not the G.O.P., has been most adept at ruling in accord with what David Rothkopf (a former Clinton administration official) in November 2008 called (commenting on President Elect Obama”s corporatist and militarist transition team and cabinet appointments) “the violin model.” Under the “violin model,” Rothkopf said, “you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right.” In other words, “you” gain and hold office with populace-pleasing progressive-sounding rhetoric ever as you actually govern in standard service to existing dominant corporate and military institutions and class hierarchies.
For what it’s worth, I have detailed the Democratic Party version of Hitchens’ “essence of American politics” during the possibly soon-to-be-concluded Age of Obama in two books: Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008) and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2011). The first book deconstructed the populist imagery and marketing surrounding candidate and budding violin maestro Obama, detailing numerous elite corporate, financial and military “reserve tags” ignored by over-excited liberals in his earlier history and campaign. The second book detailed the new president’s abject service to the deep pockets “bankrollers and backers” who sponsored him (ultimately at record-setting levels) from the beginning.
The Republicans’ Rancid Populism
Still, the Republican Party is hardly immune from the desire to cloak plutocratic policy in declared concern for “the little guy.” The GOP’s more transparently aristocratic and corporate essence has hardly prevented it from acting in accord with Hitchens’ formulation by working to create popular, “grassroots” illusions about its regressive agenda and character. After all, the Republicans also require votes from tens of millions middle and working class people to gain elected office and therefore also logically seek to manipulate populism – a sense of being of and for “the people” in opposition to concentrated wealth and power.
The result is highly unattractive. As the left-liberal journalist and author William Greider noted in his classic volume Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), the Republican Party is plagued with a critical dilemma when it comes to winning elections in a democracy. “After all,” Greider wrote, “it is the party of business enterprise…the party that most faithfully represents the minority, namely wealth holders.” It “overcomes this handicap,” Greider observed, with no small help from the Democratic Party (which has “retreat[ed] from its own [onetime] positions as the party of labor and the “little guy””). The G.O.P. also succeeds, however, by blurring partisan differences in “sexy advertising [candidate] images,” by pushing patriotic themes, and “mainly by posing as the party of the disaffected. From its polling and other research data,” Greider noted, “it concocts a rancid populism [emphasis added] that is perfectly attuned to the age of political alienation – a massage of antipower” and “us against them…” In the Republican version of “us against them,” the “us” is God-fearing, white and patriotic Americans and their traditional values and institutions. The “them” is “drawn from enduring social aggravations – wounds of race, class, and religion, even sex.”
Conveying a political mood of “resentment against established power and “elitist liberals,” distrust of major institutions, and a sense of powerlessness even as it is “concocted” by right wing elites and their corporate sponsors, this “rancid populism” gets very, very ugly: “The other party’s candidate is not simply depicted as unworthy of public office, but is connected to alien forces within the society that threaten to overwhelm decent folk – libertine sexual behavior, communists, criminals, people of color demanding more than they deserve. The Republican Party, thoroughly modern itself, poses as the bulwark against unsettling modernity.”
Along with the left political scientist Anthony DiMaggio, I have detailed the latest version of this plutocratic and rancid, right-wing fake-populism – “the Tea Party” – in a recent book: Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011).
“When Corporations Run Our Governments”
Currently we are witnessing the emergence of an authentically grassroots, popular, anti-establishment and populist citizens’ movement against concentrated economic wealth and power. I am referring, of course, to the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement of September and October 2011 and its many offshoots across the nation and continent. As the financial district occupiers have recently announced in their Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, “We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies….We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.” The Declaration’s list of grievances against corporations includes the following:
“They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process….”
“They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.”
“They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.”
“They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.”
“They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ health care and pay.”
“They have sold our privacy as a commodity”
“They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.”
“They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through control of the media.”
“They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.”
“They have donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible for regulating them.”
The statement of concern over corporate control of politicians per se is important. When I told one New York activist dressed up as a greedy billionaire that I’d seen similarly clad street thespians protesting the anti-union policies of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in Madison last March, he was quick to make a critical distinction between OWS and the Wisconsin rebellion. “The Wisconsin thing was shut down out of subordination to the Democratic Party and the union bosses,” he said. “This is different. It’s about the whole system, which is run by and for the rich whether they’ve got Republicans or Democrats out front.” I have had direct experience and contact with the movement in New York City, Chicago, and Iowa City, and I have yet to meet an occupier who doesn’t get it that Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats are front folks for the moneyed class.
“Before and After Those Two Minutes”
Despite the best efforts of the dominant corporate media to mock, downplay and otherwise marginalize the remarkable new populist movement, the basic populist OWS message has resonated across the land, sparking numerous copycat occupations, protests, and statements of solidarity. This is because U.S. policy and both wings of the business-managed American one-and-a-half party system are now so transparently captive to financialized corporate capitalism – so obviously under the proto-totalitarian control of what OWSers call “the top 1 percent” – that it has become impossible for a rising mass of Americans to deny the basic fact that meaningful progressive and democratic change cannot be achieved through the candidate-centered election spectacles that big money and big media stage for us every two and four years, telling us “that’s politics” – the only politics that matters. A significant mass of the citizenry is now ready to act on their basic, experience-based grasp of the wisdom in the late radical American historian Howard Zinn’s counsel that what matters most “isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in – in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating.” And organizing. As Zinn elaborated in the spring of 2008, “I'm talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness. Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes - the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth…But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.”
Republicans: “We Can’t Allow This to Happen”
Confronted with the new and genuinely populist, anti-corporate, independent, and anti-establishment movement that has spread like wildfire from Manhattan’s financial district to many hundreds of U.S. cities this fall, the two reigning business parties have responded in different ways. Consistent with its more explicitly reactionary nature and constituency, the Teapublicans have responded with fairly unambiguous hostility beyond opportunistic statements that (in the words of a Rick Perry spokesman) “we understand frustration with the Obama economy.” Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor speaks with timeworn ruling class disdain in denouncing “the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and the other cities across the country.” Front-running Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney calls the movement a “dangerous” expression of “class warfare.” The right wing hopeful and former Godfathers Pizza CEO Herman Cain (wildly popular among those Tea Partiers who are not too racist to back a black man) calls OWS activists “anti-American” and shames them as lazy lumpens who should stop making excuses for their personal failures: “Don’t blame Wall Street. Don’t blame the banks. If you don’t have a job and you are not rich, blame yourself.” New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg absurdly accuses the protestors of trying to “take the jobs away from hard working people.” The ridiculous racist U.S. Senator and Tea Party caucus member Rand Paul (R-KY) claims to worry that occupiers will appropriate rich peoples’ iPads – imagine! At CNCBC, FOX News, and across the right-wing talk radio empire, the activists are alternately portrayed as vicious Lenninists, union thugs, drug-crazed deadheads, and social parasites. On a radio show last week, the arch-reactionary G.O.P. Congressman Peter King (R-NY) said that “[W]e have to be careful not to allow this to get any legitimacy….I’m old enough to remember what happened in the 1960s when the left-wing took to the streets and somehow the media glorified them and it ended up shaping policy. We can’t allow that to happen.”
That is the language of the iron fist, the right hand of the ruling class ready to use violence to crush popular resistance.
Democrats: “To Bring the Anger Back to Their Side”
Reflecting different electoral calculations and a different historical constituency and identity, the Democrats have responded in a more complicated way. Sen. Charles Schumer (D.NY) is a case in point. On one hand, he has pressured other congressional Democrats and the Obama administration to push for “the millionaire’s tax” – a 5.6 percent surtax on annual incomes of more than $1 million. He is also a leading force behind a bill that would antagonize some multinational corporate interests by punishing China for currency manipulation. On the other hand, Schumer enjoys strong backing from the financial services industry and refuses to make any comment on the Wall Street protests. He repudiates the term “populist,” counseling Democrats not to malign the rich. “Populism has a sort of negativity toward the high end,” Schumer says, “and that’s not our intention. Our intention is help the middle class.” That is language crafted to reassure the big money bankrollers and to soothe the “independent” and “swing voters,” said to be suspicious of “ideological extremism,” who exercise disproportionate significance in the country’s winner-take-all and either-or “two party” elections system.
Reflecting their shift into quadrennial campaign mode and their need to “fire up the base” in the wake of the president’s all-too Wall Street-friendly performance, however, many Democratic politicians and their front forces are trying to align themselves with the OWS movement to some significant degree. When asked about the spread of the occupation movement, Obama said that “The American people understand that not everybody has been following the rules; Wall Street is an example of that.”
Senator John Forbes Kerry (D-MA) once proclaimed (at an elite Manhattan fundraiser during his failed 2004 campaign to become the richest president since John Fitzgerald Kennedy) that he was “not a redistribution Democrat.” Now he’s “very, very understanding of where [the OWS protestors] are coming from.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) goes further. “God bless them for their spontaneity,” she says. “It’s young, it’s spontaneous, it’s focused and it’s going to be effective.
Rep Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, met with demonstrators outside City Hall last week and came away “proud of my city” for holding “a peaceful, organized protest.”
The senior liberal Senator and multi-millionaire Tom Harkin (D-IA) says that he and his colleagues would be “foolish to ignore the voices” of those who are protesting an inequitable system that “rigged against their interests.” ….For more than a decade,” Harkin said in a recent media conference call, “we’ve been told that endless tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy would result in millions of jobs and a booming economy. That’s the same-old trickle-down economics that has never worked before and it’s not working now. For most Americans the only thing that has trickled down are wage-cuts, upside-down mortgages, mass unemployment, personal bankruptcies and disappearing pensions. Instead of this failed trickle-down economics for the rich, it’s time for percolate-up economics for the rest.” Not a bad statement of what’s happened.
The Democratic editors of the New York Times have been favorable to the protestors, seeing them as a natural outcome of the corporate and financial sector’s undue influence.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is seeking 100,000 signatures on a petition that declares “I stand with the Occupy Wall Street Protests.” “Meanwhile,” black radical commentator Glen Ford notes, “the DCCC fills its coffers with Wall Street money….Moveon.org., the Democrats’ front-group in movement politics, is all over the protests,” trying to channel popular anger away from finance capital and towards the Republicans and their Tea Party front. (G. Ford: “Operation Cooptation: the Dems Try to Seduce the Occupation Movement,” Black Agenda Report, October 12, 2011).
Even Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernake have expressed sympathy for the occupiers.
It’s all about trying to co-opt that movement’s genuine rank-and-file energy and to appropriate that energy as an electoral asset from the top down. Don’t take it just from a jaded radical like me or Ford. Listen to the front page top-of-the-fold reflections of the Wall Street Journal last week:
“For a Democratic Party dispirited by its president’s sliding approval ratings, the new energy has been greeted as a tonic comparable to what Republican congressional leaders tapped in the tea party movement – and are now finding it difficult to harness…Three successive elections in 2006, 2008, and 2010 were propelled by popular frustration that’s grown with economic stagnation. In the anti-Wall Street marches, Democrats see an avenue to bring the anger back to their side.” (WSJ, October 7, 2011, A1)
Good luck. I have met no occupiers who do not understand that Obama and the Democrats are no less loyal to and/or caged by Wall Street and the corporate system than the Republicans. Unlike the quintessentially Astroturf, elite-directed, mass-mediated, and fundamentally Republican Tea Party phenomenon, the occupation movement really is a populist, grassroots, and anti-establishment uprising that goes to the root of power behind the two dominant business parties. It is much less co-opt-able by Democrats than the mass protests that emerged against union-busting initiatives in Republican-controlled states (above all Wisconsin) last February and March. Its growing base of participants is not going to be easily pushed off their laser-like focus on corporate and financial power by the standard elite game of partisan distraction and divide-and-rule. Their movement reflects, among other things, three essential lessons from the fake-progressive Obama HOPE and CHANGE ascendancy, followed by the in-power “betrayals” of NOPE and CONTINUITY:
- American “democracy” is no less crippled by the dark cloud of big money and corporate rule when Democrats hold nominal power than when Republicans do.
- Real progressive and democratic change can only come from an epic bottom-up peoples’ fight with concentrated wealth and power – a fight that goes to the economic root of social, environmental, and political decay.
- It’s not about who’s sitting in the White House (or the governors’ mansion or the congressional or state-legislative or city council office) at the end of the day: it’s about “who’s sitting in,” marching, demonstrating, occupying, and (last but not least) organizing on a day-to-day basis beneath and beyond the masters’ “personalized quadrennial [electoral] extravaganzas” (Noam Chomsky’s term).
In grasping and acting on these lessons by (among other things) “call[ing] out the enemies name and address: finance capital, Wall Street” (G. Ford), the mostly youthful activists within and beyond Zucotti Park are way ahead of the nation’s official “left” “leadership.” Planning a major rally in Washington DC tomorrow (I am writing on Friday, October 14th) in support of Obama’s failed and too-little-too-late American Jobs Act, the chiefs of the NAACP, the AFL-CIO and other officially designated progressive organizations remain all too willing to help the Democrats dress their plutocratic reality in the deceptive garb of populism. OWS activists are right to keep the officially sanctioned liberal organizations at a safe distance. Those organizations have their own authoritarian agendas and structures that the occupiers rightly reject. They are still deeply invested in the big money/big media/big party/big candidate politics that the occupiers rightly disdain. And, as Ford notes in no minor warning: “Any collaboration with Obama and his corporate Democrats means the instantaneous death of the movement – and rightly so. Ultimately, finance capital must be utterly destroyed, or it will kill us all.”
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street will speak on the last book (and on the OWS movement) at 57th Street Books in Chicago (Wednesday, November 2 at 6pm), the Third Unitarian Church in Chicago (Sunday, November 6 at 9 AM), and Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City (Monday, November 7 at 7pm). Street can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
 “The term ‘populism,’ so abused in modern usage,” Greider noted in an important observation, “is now applied to almost any idea or slogan that might actually appeal to ordinary people.” Greider’s point is especially well taken with regard to the Tea Party, which numerous commentators have insisted on describing as “populist” despite its predominantly elite and plutocratic agenda, character, and backing.