Labor movement observers say two types of populism have emerged
John Judis photo | Politics and Prose

WASHINGTON – Speaking at the AFL-CIO building here last week, two of the nation’s leading observers of the labor movement agreed that two different populist movements emerged during the presidential campaigns this year.

The speakers were John Judis, a veteran National Journal analyst and Roger Hickey, executive director of Campaign for America’s Future, a prominent strategy center in the U.S. for progressive movements. They were taking part in a discussion held as part of the ongoing examination by union leaders of why so many workers supported Donald Trump for president.

Both Judis and Hickey said that the new populist movements have upended the movers and shakers of both the Democratic and Republican parties.

“The elites never saw the overthrow coming, despite Sanders’ strong campaign and Trump’s rise,” Hickey said.

He stated that the economy is at the core of the rise of both populist movements.

“We had a gap between the voters and Democratic Party leaders, including President Obama and the Clintons,” Hickey said. “The elite said ‘we’re bringing jobs back and we handled the recession,’ and voters were saying ‘hey, I’m not feeling it.’”

Many workers felt that the Democratic Party was not sufficiently responding to their needs, Hickey said.

That’s why the party suffered such a pronounced defection among workers in both the 2010 off-year election and now, Hickey said.

On the other hand, right wingers took advantage of the situation, Hickey continued. For example, many supporters of the U.S. Christian Coalition are factory workers, so Coalition leaders made clear they were concerned about factories leaving.

“U.S. Christian Coalition leaders strongly backed Trump, despite his record of three marriages, other dalliances and assaults on women – as well as his back-and-forth stance on so-called ‘moral issues,’” Hickey concluded.

Judis said that at the same time workers left the Democratic Party, they saw that the Republican elite were promoting the interests of corporations through supply-side economics full of tax cuts for the rich, so-called “free trade” treaties, and deregulation — all of which made the rich even richer.

That’s why many workers turned to populist movements that mobilized against the elites of both parties and voted to overthrow them this year, he stated.

Judis is the author of The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Changed European and American Politics.

Usually, the U.S. two-party system “tends to squeeze out extremes,” Judis said, “but at times of economic tension, the consensus in the center begins to crack.” That happened in the 1990s within the GOP, and within both parties this year.

Like Judis, several other observers have written about the disappearance of the “consensus in the political center” of America.

Last year, pollster Nate Silver published charts showing that the number of Americans who identify themselves as “moderates” is shrinking and last March, MSNBC commentator Steve Benen wrote that “Republican moderates [in Congress] no longer exist in any meaningful sense.”

Moreover, this past September, University of California Professor Robert Reich, a former secretary of labor, wrote “There are no longer ‘moderates.’ There’s no longer a ‘center.’ There’s authoritarian populism (Trump) or democratic populism, (which had been Bernie’s “political revolution).

During the AFL-CIO discussion, Judis said “Right wing populism manifested itself with Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot in 1991-92, before turning to Trump.”

He continued, right wing populists like Trump have convinced white workers “that the elites are coddling other groups – Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, Muslims and immigrants – and forcing the middle class to subsidize them.” This is similar to the Nazis convincing German workers that Germany’s economic problems were caused by Jews.

On the other hand, Judis said, left wing populists like Sanders point to corporations as the cause of the nation’s inequitable economic system. They urge American workers to fight for their own interests, as opposed to the interests of corporations.

The open question, Judis said, is whether Trump will hew to the stands that brought him to the White House – via support from the right wing populists – or be a deal-maker, as he proudly proclaims himself, and work with the GOP establishment he scorned in the campaign.

“I don’t know what will happen next. I don’t think even he knows,” Judis said of Trump.

But Judis noted that immediately after the election, Trump “started to waffle” on many promises, and although he campaigned against Wall Street he has indicated he might appoint Hedge Fund CEO Steven Mnuchin as Secretary of the Treasury.

Judis pointed to a statement issued by the Communications Workers of America that said “It’s difficult to think of a nominee who better embodies the culture of Wall Street greed than the longtime former Goldman Sachs partner.

“Naming Mnuchin as Treasury Secretary would be a slap in the face of millions of working families who will be victimized by the Wall Street-rigged economy.”


Larry Rubin
Larry Rubin

Larry Rubin has been a union organizer, a speechwriter and an editor of union publications. He was a civil rights organizer in the Deep South and is often invited to speak on applying Movement lessons to today's challenges. He has produced several folk music shows.

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.