In his impressive tome, American Populism: A Social History 1877-1898, historian Robert C. McMath, Jr., discussed how populist reformers “understood that old rules and values were crumbling, and that powerful new economic institutions buttressed by the state threatened their independence.”
This description of corporate-created economic hardship in parts of America during the late 19th century is equally fitting for the environment that confronts residents today in a swath of the country that ranges from southern Kentucky (where Republicans struck their first blow in 1994, taking over a Democratic seat in a special election), through Indiana, Ohio and Western New York.
It is this region that can help Democrats secure the short-term political gains and hone the long-term message that will reestablish their New Deal populist credentials and help them once again become the majority party in the nation.
It’s not that winning every seat from suburban Pennsylvania to south Florida is not of the utmost importance if Democrats are to retake the House and apply the brakes to the Bush administration’s paean to governance in the image of Ferdinand Marcos. But if the Democrats are to reclaim their heritage as the party of the people, their best bet is an approach that emphasizes populist economics. They would also do well to tackle the disastrous war in Iraq, along with offering a plan to clean up a Republican-run government mired with greedy plutocrats that doesn’t pretend to represent average people.
Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University, is the author of the mid-’90s classic Populist Persuasion, and most recently the biography A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. “Populist appeals are successful when a majority believes they are being disregarded or exploited by a small elite minority,” he says, “where people in power are abusing the public trust or representing the interests of economic elites at their expense.”
So let’s take a stroll through what I like to call the Bait-and-Switch Belt. Here, middle- and lower-middle class urban, rural and exurban voters have been wooed by Republicans who display a brand of populism that trots out red herrings to blame for the economic woes their policies create – from abortion-loving feminists to Janet Jackson’s nipple.
In this region, two governors in bordering states have been convicted of graft and awarding special privilege to party flunkies: Bob Taft in Ohio and Ernie Fletcher in Kentucky. An influential Ohio Republican fundraiser, Tom Noe, was trusted with investing workers’ compensation funds, and chose possibly the dumbest method one could concoct – purchasing rare coins, some of which he promptly lost. His trial just began, and he seems likely to be headed to a place where he can apply his strategic thinking to the production of license plates. Ohio Rep. Bob Ney just pled guilty to being a part of the Abramoff ring. And National Republican Congressional Committee Chair and upstate New York Rep. Tom Reynolds covered up the lion-on-the-Serengeti IM habits of former Congressman Mark Foley. According to columnist Robert Novak, Reynolds even encouraged Foley to run again for office after seeing the e-mails that one harassed page characterized as “sick.”
In contrast to these gems, the Bait-and-Switch Belt has local Democrats who understand the populist rhythms of their districts and speak passionately about jobs, the middle class tax burden and the immorality of cutting workers’ healthcare for that coveted extra zero on a CEO paycheck.
Tom Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, writes in his new book, Whistling Past Dixie, that Democrats can win outside of the South by “planting a flag,” or standing firm on economic issues important to working and middle class voters. “These areas are filled with a large percentage of Catholic swing-voters, and there is not that ‘racial trigger’ of their being in proximity to African-Americans like in the Deep South,” he writes, “and the evangelism is more muted. Democrats can win many of these voters back if they differentiate themselves from Republicans on economic issues.”
One need only look at the statistics to see how this might work. More than one-in-five manufacturing jobs has disappeared from Ohio over the past five years, placing it second only to Michigan, according to The Brookings Institute. Indiana and New York also rank among the top seven. While the federal unemployment rate stood at 4.6 percent in September, Kentucky and Ohio unemployment rates were among the highest in the nation at 5.8 percent and 5.7 percent, respectively.
This combination of corruption and corroded factories explains why there are three vulnerable GOP seats in Kentucky, three to four in Indiana, up to five in Ohio and possibly six in Northern and Western New York. In Ohio, Reps. Sherrod Brown and Ted Strickland, prototypical Midwestern populists, are running, and Democrats are also leading in the races for the U.S. Senate and governor’s mansion. It is a bit remarkable when you consider that three of these four states voted for President Bush, and yet, this region could provide the entire net 15-seat gain the Democrats need to take the House.
Two Democrats who are doing their best to make this a reality are challengers Mike Arcuri, whose district in is located around the Utica area of New York and John Yarmuth, whose Kentucky district surrounds Louisville – a metropolitan area that’s seen many jobs shipped overseas.
Arcuri, the District Attorney of Oneida County, has run on campaign themes that Democrats should pay attention to: his background as a tough-on-crime prosecutor (think anti-corruption) and his opposition to lower middle-class taxes. His commercials hammer his opponent, state Sen. Randy Meier, who never met a middle-class tax he wouldn’t raise in order to give a tax break to investment bankers.
Yarmuth, a local entrepreneur and columnist for Louisville’s alternative newspaper The Leo, points out that the incumbent in Kentucky’s 3rd District, Anne Northup, has on numerous occasions called outsourcing “a good thing.” She also apparently had better things to do than fly to Detroit with Louisville’s mayor and the governor of Kentucky to convince Ford to keep a truck plant in the area. (Once they succeeded, of course, she took credit for it.) Yarmuth calls for “putting the government back on the side of working people” by not taking campaign contributions from “any industry” and stopping jobs from being shipped abroad.
These two candidates address other salient issues, such as Northup’s too-many-to-count claims of a definitive connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda, and Randy Meier’s extremism on social issues, including his opposition to stem-cell research. But economic populism is the backbone of their races, with anti-corruption thrown in for good measure.
Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, points out that there are many older “Roosevelt and Truman Democrats in this region who have voted Republican since Reagan, but would like to vote for Democrats if they wear the mantle of a leader, and are authentic in both their persona and economic stands.”
Democrats nationally must learn from this approach and dump Democratic Leadership Council dogma if they’re to regain majority status – not just in the Bait-and-Switch Belt, but in economically hard hit expanses from Milwaukee to Montana, Minnesota to New Mexico.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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