Politico published an excellent article on Oklahoma’s former senator Fred Harris a few days ago, and for those of us old enough here, it overwhelms the senses with nostalgia, bringing back a time when truth still matter at least somewhat in the political realm and when a person defined as a populist really described someone who cared about working-class people.
— POLITICO (@politico) January 2, 2017
Harris, 86, who represented Oklahoma in the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from 1964 to 1973, was and remains a true populist, and he laments both the election of President-elect Donald Trump and how the word “populist” is often twisted and distorted to describe him. In Harris’ view, according to the article, “Populism is simply about voting for your own interests instead of against your interests—with the knowledge that your interests are the same as the interests of everyone else.” None of that describes Trump, who is self-interested to the brink of narcissism and will work to protect the interests of fellow millionaires and billionaires. Maybe he’ll give his base supporters a war to feed their nationalistic cravings, but that’s about it on a major level, in my opinion.
Richard Linnett, who wrote the article, describes the argument over the word populism like this:
When Harris looks at Donald Trump’s campaign, he sees a vision of populism fundamentally opposed to the way he saw the movement. In the 1970s, Harris aimed to build political clout by creating new coalitions across boundaries of race, gender and class, uniting people on the basis of their shared struggle.
I don’t envision Trump building “new coalitions across boundaries of race, gender and class.” In fact, I see Trump obviously dividing people along those boundaries, and I also view him as a misogynist, who objectifies women based on their physical appearance. His supporters apparently don’t care about this aspect of his nature when it comes to women, or agree with it, or think it’s just locker-room banter.
Linnett goes on the describe Harris’s 1976 run for the presidency in which he ran a truly grassroots populist campaign, staying overnight at people’s houses while campaigning across the country. Many people here, especially younger folks, don’t realize that Oklahoma was once a populist bastion that produced such heroes as Will Rogers and Woody Guthrie and, of course, Harris himself, who is retired now and lives in New Mexico.
It’s a great article, and I urge everyone to read it. I suspect, unfortunately, that most of the Oklahomans who read it will be older and liberal. The people who need to read it—the conservatives here who really think Trump is a populist and has concern for their interests—probably won’t even know of the article’s existence and, even if they did, would ignore it because it’s part of the “liberal media conspiracy” or whatever they think these days. Maybe they’ve moved on to something even more conspiratorial.
I want to focus on two paragraphs in the article, which I think point to a way progressive, liberals and real populists should respond now that Trump is about to become president.
Here’s the first paragraph, which applies to me and many people reading this as well:
Over the past month, as the reality of Trump’s victory has sunk in, Fred has been bombarded with fundraising solicitations from some of the many disparate grass-roots progressive groups, including Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution, MoveOn.org, Progressive Democrats for America, Democracy for America, the Campaign for America’s Future and Barack Obama’s Organizing for Action.
I’ve already brought up this bombardment in my own writing recently. What is happening is that all these organizations and even others are asking for money with no real overall strategy. Any liberal with an email address who has been even just a little bit politically active knows what I’m talking about. The emails all follow this narrative, “The world is ending as we know it, and we need money to stave off the ending of the world as we know it.” The money appeals lack specific strategies and create a false dichotomy between the donators and the donees. “Let us handle this” is the message from all these advocacy groups, but the problem is they didn’t get the job done in 2016, and it’s unlikely they will do so now. I agree with the stated missions of all these groups, of course, but the reality is that there’s no overall strategy.
In the article’s next paragraph, Harris, called “the godfather of populism” in the article’s headline, weighs in on all the fragmentation of liberal advocacy groups. Harris says:
It seems to me, if somehow they could all merge, or even merge into the Democratic Party, you’d really have something. That’s what needs to be done. I’ve been thinking about talking to Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown and some others about doing it. These groups have the same goals and platforms that the Democratic Party now has. It’s such a damn shame to have all this fragmented action for exactly the same goals.
I won’t get into the Warren and Brown duo, although I support each of them, but I do strongly support the idea of merging all these groups into a larger movement here in Oklahoma and, of course, nationally. For that to happen, we’ll need fewer organizations and fewer leaders. We’ll need more reaching out from the national Democratic Party beyond money appeals. Why won’t it GIVE money to support street-level and community-level populist advocacy instead of just asking for money. It IS a damn shame, Fred.
I published a post back in 2005 (yes, 2005, or about 12 years ago) that made Harris’ argument on a local Oklahoma level. This is a longer quote from the post, but it still has relevance, I guess, maybe even more so now:
Right now, the progressive movement in Oklahoma is fragmented and splintered. We do not know each other. That is my argument, anyway. Take it or leave it. Maybe it will always be that way because, overall, we are a small group marginalized by the state’s right-wing power structure. Maybe it is useless, and we should just shut up and get drunk or move to New York or Los Angeles like so many other former Oklahoma liberals. Maybe the quasi-fascists have won already and what we are doing here is just the last gasp of democracy before the coming theocracy. (Certainly, Oklahoma could be one of the first theocratic states in the union, right?) Soon, we could be sipping our Orwellian Victory gin in our tiny New York apartments waiting for the next religious edict to come down from the White House. Sometimes, that seems even better than living here in the red-state sea of “W” supporters.
Back then I couldn’t imagine a more frightening political cataclysm than the one that brought former President George W. Bush to power, a man who started two needless wars, increased income disparity to epic proportions and ruined the world economy. He didn’t initially win the popular vote either. Now I really CAN imagine some reality worse than the Bush years. Progressives need to unite, merge, come together, however you want to describe it.
A real populist movement can’t be based on asking people for money in emails. You can’t buy real progressive change with a PayPal account or a credit card. Not everyone gets to be the leader, and they are far too many self-appointed leaders nationally and locally and not enough people ready to fully engage. Listen to what Fred Harris has to say. Ignore his message at your own risk.