Demonstrators outside of the U.S. Capitol during a Poor People's Campaign rally.
Demonstrators outside of the U.S. Capitol during a Poor People's Campaign rally on June 23, 2018. Jose Luis Magana/AP

Progressive Populism Roared Back In 2018

Populism was reclaimed by American progressives, as citizen-initiated ballot measures and a Poor People’s Campaign took aim at poverty and voter suppression.

In the last few years, populism had to sit and watch as political pundits applied her name to a trend of right-wing movements worldwide, some of which might have been more aptly served by the appellations xenophobic, solipcistic, and racist (see Brazil, Italy…the United States.)

But in 2018, progressive populism roared back. On the last day of 2018, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren announced she is exploring a run for president, with what Waleed Shahid of the group Justice Democrats described as a  “message of multiracial populism,” in The New York Times.

This capped off a year that saw political movements and citizen-led ballot measures initiated by many “common” folk who came to the realization that the reason they do not have decent health care, or enough food to eat, or honest, fair-paid work, is not because of migrants at our borders, or people of color lazing on their sofas, but oligarchs determined to grow even richer.

Populism is belief in the wisdom of the common man, and the shocks of 2016 in the U.S. did have pedestrian origin: It is an everyday occurrence in the United States that a rich boy uses his birth privilege to become a rich man, and that the high school bully who falls back on vulgar jokes, and racist and cruel stereotypes draws a certain tawdry fealty. But perhaps in response to that, this year a leftist populism manifested in a spate of ballot initiatives at the city and state level. In both blue and red states, measures that called for progressive outcomes like minimum wage increases and criminal justice reform passed across the U.S.

CityLab’s Sarah Holder wrote about the progressive populist roots of this method of direct democracy in the United States. Born in California during the gilded age of a desire to wrest control of California politics from railroad barons, ballot measures meant that, for the first time, voters “had an opportunity to pass policies rather than having companies take control of their politicians,” Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, told Holder in November.

Ballot measures have been growing in popularity: While their numbers had been waning for a decade, 2016 broke records for the number of ballot initiatives in states, and that number was nearly equaled in the 2018 midterm elections according to the politics and elections tracking organization Ballotpedia.

On the grassroots level, the Poor People’s Campaign launched this spring with 40 days of moral action across the country. Led by two reverend doctors: Liz Theoharis, a white Northeastern woman; and Willam Barber, a black Southern man; it aims to build a multi-racial movement of poor people united in the fight for common dignity. The movement is the contemporary version of the Poor People’s Campaign that Martin Luther King Jr. was building at the time of his assassination (the 1968 campaign was remembered in CityLab this year at its 50-year anniversary). King’s words at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965 foreshadowed the path he would take:

Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. That is what was known as the Populist Movement. The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.

The Poor People’s Campaign is building a movement based on the belief that fighting poverty and oppression transcends all other racial or demographic divisions. Through legal channels and civil action, it is fighting against the voter suppression that has also characterized 2018.

Last week, in an article about the power of black voters, The New York Times characterized the message of U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio who is considered a likely candidate for president in 2020, as this brand of populism: “It’s important that Democratic progressives make a distinction between President Trump’s ‘phony populism’ and a true populist message, which does not divide on racial or religious lines.”

Populism does not mean the veneration of ignorance and selfishness, and it is not the exclusive province of the right.

In 2018, progressive populism roared in America.

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