Populist Punches: “Down and Back or Up and Forward?”


What kind of populism? Will we succumb to a scapegoating populism that boxing-919692 2punches down, using fear to appeal to a shrinking homogeneous white base? Or will we embrace a progressive populism that punches up and articulates an aspirational vision of a way forward together — for all of us?

Thanks to Jonathan Smucker, a long time organizer in progressive movements for this essay:  “We want a political revolution. First we must defeat fascism”  and for his work with the organizing resource center  Beyond the Choir.

screen_shot_2014-07-30_at_1.48.32_pm 2Smucker makes several key points with an uncommon clarity, given the whirlwind of this political moment. Among them:

The “populism” of the present– on the right and the left– is a response to the crisis of legitimacy that political authority– the “establishment”– has deservedly enabled.  The good news is that a crisis of legitimacy…

presents our underdog movements with an incredible opportunity to narrate the crisis, to reframe the premises of American society, and to organize a new progressive populist alignment capable of challenging the entrenched power of elites.

But a crisis of legitimacy is extraordinarily dangerous for a left…

that is not ready to take advantage of it. History shows that when progressives fail to realign popular social forces in such populist moments, reactionary authoritarians can suddenly step in with remarkable speed and horrific consequences. 

Smucker usefully calls attention to the strategic racism,the effectiveness of a  Dog Whistle Politics, that


associated liberalism with a welfare state whose recipients were framed as lazy and taking-advantage, if not outright dangerous criminals….in turning middle-class whites against public institutions and social welfare.

Echoing a significant work by Steve Fraser,  The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America (2016).  he suggests that so51VgNilIteLcially liberal core issues and victories and the simultaneous decline of organized labor and with it mass economic well being as core liberal issues offers

 another reason why this negative branding campaign against the liberal label worked so well, which is that there’s more than a grain of truth to the charge against contemporary liberalism — that it is elitist.

This can be changed. Indeed, he reminds us:

On nearly every major issue, relatively progressive positions have come to enjoy a majority of support. From regulating Wall Street to progressive taxation to health care, from mass incarceration to marijuana legalization to gay marriage, the nation has become progressive.

Finally, he takes on the “heighten the contradictions” school of politics who look forward to advance by picking up the pieces after catastrophe. History and mind-the-gapsocial movement theory and common sense suggest otherwise:

And if you’re considering staying home in November because ‘maybe things have to get worse before people wake up,’ you should know that this fanciful notion is completely unsupported by history. There is no good reason why things can’t just keep getting worse indefinitely. It is belief in the possibility that things could get better — what social movement scholars call “raised expectations” — that inspires people to take action and join progressive movements.

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