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Populism Isn't A Dirty Word — It's Time For Democrats To Reclaim It

U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, the 2018 Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Texas, speaks during a campaign rally, Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in El Paso, Texas. (Eric Gay/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, the 2018 Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Texas, speaks during a campaign rally, Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in El Paso, Texas. (Eric Gay/AP)

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Despite what you might have heard, most Americans embrace socialist ideas – if not the branding.

Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — common good programs funded by taxpayer money — remain popular. The next evolution of these social programs, Medicare For All, enjoys bipartisan support from voters.

These facts are worth revisiting right now. The Democrats just won a sizeable share of House seats, giving the party momentum it sorely lacked in 2016. The timing couldn’t be better because the next big race is the one that will pit a lone Democratic candidate against Donald Trump for control of the White House. That contest, of course, kicks off with an inter-party argument about what the Democratic Party’s 2020 message and agenda should be.

Judging by how the midterms went for Democrats — compared to the disaster that was the 2016 election — and based on the deteriorating socioeconomic climate in America today, the diagnosis for Democrats is clearer than ever.

If the Democrats want to beat Trump in 2020, they must nominate a populist.

Before we go any further, let’s clear up a few mistakes people make when they hear the word “populism.”

Following Trump’s 2016 victory, populism became a signifier for regressive mob-fueled politics. Why? Because populism, by definition, indulges mass public sentiment. This is how Trump was able to win enough white working class voters to round out his wealthier base — he exploited the genuine pain felt by working class communities that have been gutted by bipartisan economic policies that lavished rewards on corporations and the rich, at the expense of working people.

What Trump embraced was regressive populism -- his endgame was persuading enough white working class voters to support a racist and plutocratic campaign disguised as an insurrection against elites. And it worked. Not only did Trump win, but most of the punditry read Trump’s win as a rebuke to the “civil” technocratic consensus politics of the Obama years. And the more this narrative spread, the quicker regressive populism became the only kind of populism people can imagine.

But there’s another way to wage populism in an ethical manner that lifts people up and holds the powerful accountable — it’s called progressive populism, and it’s what the Democratic Party should embrace as an affront to Trump and a rallying call to voters.

Some Democrats might bristle at the thought of appealing to the emotions of the masses. But one of today’s most renowned Democratic figures did exactly this. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was a textbook example of progressive populism. On the trail, Obama called for a common sense rebuke to the “expert” opinions that led us into two wars and a recession. Obama encouraged voters to imagine an America where human rights would include affordable health care and education, living wages and environmental protections.

In the end, Obama abandoned progressive populism and surrounded himself with the usual rogues' gallery of behind-the-scenes elites such as Larry Summers and Tim Geithner.

The coming months will present opportunities for politicians to go even further to the left.

But today’s rising Democratic politicians are bringing populism back in a bigger and bolder way.

The obvious example is incoming New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who campaigned to the left of Obama and defeated a Democratic incumbent by embracing ideas like publicly-funded health care for all. Many of her peers — including Rashida Tlaib, Jared Golden and Boston’s own Ayanna Pressley -- have echoed calls for similar programs that would address the economic vulnerability that millions of Americans in red and blue states experience daily.

The coming months will present opportunities for politicians to go even further to the left. As climate change gets worse, the idea of a “Green New Deal” will be explored. The goal of this deal would be to unchain the economy from fossil fuels, which would require the government to catalyze renewable energy development and create new jobs for those displaced by transitioning away from oil and coal.

Another form that progressive populism could take is anti-trust legislation that would break up the monopoly power of corporations like Amazon. Given the impact that such corporations can have on public policy, wage growth, small business development and housing prices, an anti-trust pushback from Democrats would signal that the party fights for working people first — which is the demographic that the Democrats are supposed to fight for.

An early look at polls suggests that voters want this kind of agenda from the next Democratic presidential contender.

According to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, the leading Democratic “picks” for 2020 are Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke. Biden is often confused as a working class hero. (His record of actually fighting for working people is pretty bad.) Sanders, of course, mounted a progressive populist insurgency against Hillary Clinton in 2016, which earned him support from millennials who fear for their economic future. And O’Rourke, who ran a similar campaign in Texas, has already ascended the national party popularity contest, despite losing his race to Ted Cruz.

That poll reflects public sentiment tracked in prior surveys about 2020. Elizabeth Warren’s star has also risen recently, thanks to her prolific consumer advocacy work. The pool of White House hopefuls will get bigger in the months ahead, and when the first debate airs, it’s essential that Democrats remember what caused this year’s strong midterms turnout. It wasn’t just reactionary revulsion to Trump — it was candidates who reached out to communities that have felt abandoned by political leaders who claim to be allies. It was a vision put forth by these candidates, of an America where socioeconomic justice comes first.

The 2020 Democratic nominee for president must apply that approach to the national stage. They must reclaim populism from the right, renounce the Democratic Party’s fealty to corporations, and offer hope to marginalized voters. This won’t be easy and the donor class (which includes many Democrats) won’t be thrilled about this strategy.

But, to borrow a term that neoliberal Democrats use, it’s the pragmatic thing to do.

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Miles Howard Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Miles Howard is the author of "The Early Voters: Millennials, In Their Own Words, On the Eve of a New America." His next book will be about young people running for public office.

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