American history is the history of populist uprisings. From the Revolutionary War to the coalfield wars, from labor organizers to anti-tax crusaders, from the New Deal to the current conservative era, backlashes to the status quo have defined every major political era.
These uprisings have given us candidates from Goldwater to Dean, and presidents from Roosevelt to Reagan – and the populist uprising that delivered Barack Obama the Democratic presidential nomination means history could be forged once again.
What are populist uprisings? Loosely defined, they are a welling up of anger toward the established order – revolts that are often the precursor to a full-fledged social movement. The uprising against inequality during the Great Depression fueled the labor movement and the New Deal, which raised wages and created the middle class. The uprising against Jim Crow laws in the 1960s became the civil rights movement, which made America more equal. The uprising against liberalism during the late 1970s became the conservative movement of the 1980s, which deregulated the economy and fed the military-industrial complex.
It is that rebellion three decades ago that tells us we are indeed experiencing another uprising.
Just like the late 1970s, America currently faces the telltale signs of all insurrections: an economic emergency, a financial meltdown, an energy crisis and a national security quagmire.
Political analysts say this is bad news for the Right because George W. Bush sits atop today’s mess, and conservatives have responded by running away from the president and by attempting to channel the outrage into their old anti-tax, anti-immigrant, anti-government agenda. But that misunderstands what has changed.
According to Gallup’s survey data, the public has not only lost confidence in the political system as it did in the late 1970s, but also in corporations.. In 1979, one in three Americans told Gallup’s pollsters they had confidence in big business. By 2007, a little less than one in five expressed the same confidence. In 1979, almost two out of three citizens said they had faith in banks. Today, only two out of five say the same thing.
This is the real problem for a conservative movement that has become a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America. Unlike 1980, when Ronald Reagan rode the conservative uprising to a landslide victory, the country is not looking for a movement that gets the government to back off big business, nor are we looking for politicians who pretend the Enrons and Bear Stearnses are victims. This uprising is searching for a movement that gets big business back under control and leaders who are serious about aiming “law and order” rhetoric not at dark-skinned people, but at the royalists whose greed is driving the economy into the ground.
As I found in reporting my new book, The Uprising, some already recognize this new political topography. For instance, New York’s Working Families Party has become a powerful grassroots force for economic justice in Wall Street’s backyard. Unions have boosted their membership by the largest margin in a quarter-century. Shareholder activists are finding more support for initiatives that challenge corporate misbehavior. Even some Republicans like Mike Huckabee have bashed CEOs and berated lobbyist-written trade policies.
Whether this ferment becomes a transpartisan social movement will depend on a number of questions. Will the Democratic Party stop demoralizing its grassroots base and break free of its moneyed faction that gave us travesties like NAFTA? Will mavericks like Huckabee reshape the GOP? And most importantly, is the presidential election hype going to trick Americans into believing candidates are social movements, rather than one of many vehicles for them?
The answers will determine whether this is a fleeting uprising of ineffective protest or a movement about wielding power – yet another forgotten moment or, finally, an historic one.