There’s no shortage of groups and people who want the 2016 presidential race to be about their issue of choice, hoping that all the candidates will be forced to answer their questions and maybe even support their preferred policy solutions. But if you call yourself an economic populist — even if the word “populism” wasn’t so central to how you talked about the economy a year or two ago — you may have a better shot than most at seeing the 2016 debate move to your ground.
The populism bandwagon is starting to get pretty crowded. As Matea Gold reported yesterday, the Democratic millionaires and billionaires of the Democracy Alliance were heartened at their recent gathering by Hillary Clinton’s argument that “the deck is stacked in favor of those already at the top,” and “the organization is urging donors to contribute to an expanded suite of advocacy groups and think tanks devoted to economic inequality.” As one participant said, “The election will be won or lost on this.”
This morning I got on a conference call with a group of liberal organizations holding a conference in Washington this weekend called “Populism2015,” the primary goal of which seems to be political organizing aimed specifically at pushing issues of economic equality into the presidential campaign.
Groups with a general ideological perspective like the ones involved in this effort (including the Campaign for America’s Future and USAction) often shift their focus as the political debate changes. When we’re debating health care, they make a push on health care; when we’re debating trade, they do the same with trade; and so on. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of political opportunism, since it’s often how movements make progress, by adapting their message and demands to the environment of the moment. And if their goal is to get Hillary Clinton (and whatever other Democrats run) to talk about inequality, then they’ve already succeeded.
But the devil is really in the details.
The Populism2015 folks have an agenda that includes increased public investment to create jobs, higher taxes on the wealthy, a $15 minimum wage, breaking up the big banks, increasing Social Security benefits, and opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal President Obama is currently trying to get through Congress. It’s likely that Clinton will embrace some of these items, but not others. The question is whether grassroots activism can generate the pressure that will not only bring her over, but ultimately translate into policy change.
That’s where it gets daunting. For instance, one of the items the liberal groups listed was getting big money out of politics. When I asked how they were going to accomplish that given a string of Supreme Court decisions making it easier for just the opposite to occur, they said that the first step was to organize to change state and local laws, and that would ultimately translate to a national effort. Which is great, but they didn’t seem to want to talk about how it’s all but impossible to imagine how a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United could be accomplished (and for the record, Clinton says she’s got a campaign finance reform plan, but hasn’t yet revealed what it is).
Campaign finance reform could well be one of those issues that lots of people pay lip service to, but little definable progress ends up being seen on in the near term. On some of the other items on the populist agenda, on the other hand, it’s easier to envision policy change relatively soon. One state after another is passing increases in the minimum wage, and the push for a $15 minimum could make the $10.10 rate President Obama has advocated seem like a moderate compromise.
As Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America’s Future said on the call: “We’re in a populist moment here in America, and even conservative Republicans tell us that.” It’s true that the GOP candidates are starting to frame their arguments in populist terms, as weird as it is for a Republican advocating something like eliminating the capital gains tax to say he just wants to help the little guy fight against entrenched power.
When the other side is adopting your language and claiming to share your goals, you may be halfway to victory. It’s the other half that’s the hard part.