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Embracing Populism

The Democratic victories on Nov. 7 were thanks to the populist agenda of challenging corporate economic power.

BY David Sirota

It is a blissful yet bewildering feeling. You fight so long, endure so much establishment belittlement, and suddenly you win. That’s what happened on Nov. 7: We the populists won.

After our fully warranted victory laps and back patting, we must review Nov. 7’s lessons. If Democrats want to hold a governing majority, they must see the election for what it was: a mandate for economic populism and a battle cry against Big Money’s war on middle-class Americans.

Candidates all over the country talked about how corporate lobbyists have manipulated our trade policy to crush workers, our energy policy to harm consumers and our health care policy to hurt families. Polls show populism (a.k.a., challenging corporate economic power) is the “center” position for the voting public, even though it may not be the “center” position in a K-Street-owned Washington, D.C.

Since the election, Washington’s elite have tried to deny progressives credit and to downplay a mandate that threatens their agenda. These revisionists say the election was about Democrats pretending to be Republicans, billing people like Virginia Senator-elect Jim Webb as a “conservative.” Yet here is what this “conservative” wrote in a Nov. 15 Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Class Struggle”:

The most important–and unfortunately the least debated–issue in politics today is our society’s steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century. America’s top tier has grown infinitely richer and more removed over the past 25 years. … The top 1 percent now takes in an astounding 16 percent of national income, up from 8 percent in 1980. The tax codes protect them, just as they protect corporate America, through a vast system of loopholes.

If that is the new “conservative,” progressives won an even bigger victory than we thought.

This is a difficult time for Beltway lobbyists and corporate front-groups like the Democratic Leadership Council. It hurts them to see how populism was the Democrats’ ticket. But the elite are not contrite, rather they babble–“Vital dynamic center! Vital dynamic center!” We can understand their outbursts–it hurts to be rejected–but they are just going to have to deal. As winning candidates from Virginia to Kansas to Montana proved, the strategy of repeating lobbyist-written talking points to win red states belongs in the historical scrap heap. It’s the Era of Populism now.

This election, we also saw the potency of the Internet as a weapon. There is the myth circulating that Ned Lamont’s loss to Joe Lieberman in Connecticut was a loss for Internet organizing. This is utterly silly. The Lamont campaign, on which I worked as a political strategist, raised millions of dollars online and brought in thousands of volunteers through the Internet. Without the netroots, the Lamont candidacy never would have gotten off the ground in the first place.

Finally, movement progressives need to continue to see the Democratic Party as a means to an end–not an end unto itself. We need more candidates like Lamont–leaders who challenge lobbyists-in-Senator’s-clothing like Lieberman and consequently change the national debate on major issues like Iraq.

We must also understand that in fighting these fights, we are going to lose more than we win. That is what happens when you challenge incumbents. But both the wins and the losses are important, because they all help build a movement that transcends any one election cycle.

The major fight in American politics did not end on Nov. 7. All that ended was the beginning of our struggle. Now, the hard work starts–the work that must conclude with more than just a different set of politicians having plum offices in the U.S. Capitol. We must achieve results that affect ordinary Americans’ lives and change the course of this country for the long haul.

That is what America voted for–and that is what our country deserves.

David Sirota, an In These Times senior editor and syndicated columnist, is a staff writer at PandoDaily and a bestselling author whose book Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything was released in 2011. Sirota, whose previous books include The Uprising and Hostile Takeover, co-hosts "The Rundown" on AM630 KHOW in Colorado. E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

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