A group of lefties spark a protest movement, a movement that's clashing with police, yet it is nonetheless receiving widespread public support, praise from establishment Democrats, and relatively respectful coverage in the corporate media. It's also defying the efforts of conservatives to denigrate and stigmatize it; in fact, some Republicans are so flummoxed as to how the respond that they're choosing to halfway embrace it.
George Wallace may finally be dead for real.
As we all know, the contemporary incarnation of conservative populism has been a powerful political force for four decades. Along with its partner in crime, corporate power, it's made conservatism the country's dominant political ideology. It was born when right-wing pols began to sell the notion that liberals and the Democratic Party were out-of-step with the "real America." Jon Meacham gets it sort of right here (which is more right than he usually gets it.)
Roughly put, the white backlash against civil rights and an increasingly expensive government enabled politicians such as Richard Nixon — who is really the architect of the kind of populism still practiced by figures like Sarah Palin — to change the conversation from economics to culture. For decades now, Republicans have successfully urged Truman’s “little guy” to think more about cultural elites than financial ones. (George Wallace’s “pointy-headed professors,” for instance, or Roger Ailes’s “liberal media.”) Democrats who talked about economic justice were marginalized or defeated outright. And so cultural populism displaced economic populism as a political force in American life.
I'd say Wallace and not Nixon is the "architect" of modern conservative populism; Nixon's "Silent Majority" and 'Southern Strategy" had roots in Wallace's presidential campaigns. Also Meacham, while overstating the significance of "expensive government" in the birth of conservative populism, ignores the societal rift caused by the Vietnam War; next to race, national security has been the cultural issue most effectively exploited by the right.
More egregiously, Meacham overlooks Democrats' aiding-and-abetting role, saying "Democrats who talked about economic justice were marginalized or defeated outright." In fact, Democrats, cowed by the GOP's populism, stopped talking about economic justice and allowed themselves to be marginalized. As Kevin Baker points out, the Democrats, themselves reeling from the upheaval of the sixties, internalized the right's critique, with disastrous results.
It turned out not to be necessary for the right to actually become populist. Absorbing the old cant now constantly echoed by an intimidated or captive mass media—that liberals are naïve, impractical, “out of the mainstream”—Democratic leaders fell for the idea that the right represented the true will of the people and acted accordingly... Assuming a posture of helplessness before the Republicans’ fraudulent Populism, the Democrats acquiesced to and assisted in bundling up the nation’s industrial base and shipping it overseas—a policy that shut down the working class escalator to a better life, gutted the unions, and deprived liberals of their main source of political power.
And Dems also began to woo Wall Street beginning with Jimmy Cater, who deregulated the banks. Of course, it was Bill Clinton who made Wall Street a dominant player inside the party. (At the same time, Clinton tried to blunt the GOP's conservative populism by becoming something of a conservative populist himself.)
Due in part to the Dems' scared shuffle to the right, the GOP rode conservative populism to terrific heights. You know the drill. Welfare queens. Willie Horton. Card-carrying member of the ACLU. Kerry windsurfing. It's the subtext, if not text itself, of every GOP presidential campaign, as well as thousands of Congressional ones: the Democrat (the "liberal," whether or not the label applies) represents "them," not "us," even if the GOP candidate is, say, a Hollywood actor or the son of a Senator or a draft-dodging, coke-snorting Yalie son of a President.
The first big sign that conservative populism had lost its fastball was the election of Barack Obama. They tried to depict him as un-American, as foreign, as Other, as an Ivy Leaguer. The race card wasn't a trump card. They energized and enraged the GOP base, but they didn't convince a critical mass of Americans that Barack Obama is not one of "us."
The purpose of conservative populism is simple: to divide. Black from white. Working class from the poor. Men from women. Cultural progressives from cultural moderates. The religious from the secular. When your agenda benefits a miniscule fraction of the electorate, you have no choice but to divide, to keep people squabbling while you stuff your pockets with cash. If people were to unite according to their economic interests, you would be cooked.
That's what's happening now, or beginning to happen. The "We are the 99 percent" message is so potent because it highlights economic inequality and binds the overwhelming majority of Americans together, transcending all the mostly superficial divisions that conservatives and corporations seek to exploit. It's a bullet to the heart of conservative populism, and that noise your hear are the cries of the oligarchs.
As the financial powers feel their control of the country slipping, they will try to trigger a backlash. The pundits and politicians who serve them will go back to their old playbook, because they have no other. At the moment they're trying to depict the movement as anti-Semitic. When that fails, they will claim it is communist and anti-American. Researchers on the right are feverishly looking into the backgrounds and affiliations of people involved in the movement. Some of the divides in American culture aren't superficial. Tribalism runs deep, as does prejudice, and conservatives will as always try to use them to their advantage.
They will fail. They will fail because conservatism has succeeded. The corporate-funded right has transferred so much wealth to the rich that the middle class and formerly middle class have become (even more) populist.
[T]he nation’s businesses have illegally, callously, and systematically abused their workers in a time of increased global competition and technological change, while government protection of workers’ rights has significantly weakened...The longstanding distinction between the blue-collar and white-collar worker has been blurred. Good blue-collar jobs are disappearing rapidly as manufacturing industries decline; but many new white-collar jobs pay poorly, provide minimal health care and pension benefits, and offer little job security.
The suffering is so widespread, and the injustice so blatant, that more and more Americans are directing their anger not downward but upward, finally finally finally, at the people who've gotten staggeringly rich at the expense of the great majority.
The Occupy Wall Street protests at last suggest that America’s wealth gap is once again becoming an organizing political principle in the country.
To be clear, I'm not saying that OWS will prevail: who would dare predict victory given the power it's up against? I'm saying the right wing will not succeed in marginalizing this movement by portraying it as out of the mainstream. Because we are the 99 percent.