How Big Money Keeps Populism at Bay

From Alternet:

When the 1 percent funds national campaigns, the reality of populism is in question.

By Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, Jie Chen
January 8, 2014

Did the ball that dropped in Times Square at midnight on January 1 really signal a new political era?

Headlines in the major media proclaim that a wave of “populism” is building. Inequality and the minimum wage are suddenly front-burner political issues. Cities like New York and Boston have just elected progressive mayors with strong ties to unions and are now being touted  as liberal laboratories for testing the limits of the grudging free-market conservatism and neo-liberalism that have been the sun and moon of our political system for decades.

Even the atmosphere within the DC Beltway is subtly altering. The steady decline of the deficit is turning the tables on the massively funded campaign to cut Social Security and Medicare. In December 2013, the corporate-oriented Democratic policy group Third Way launched a campaign in the Wall Street Journal to smear Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other Democratic politicians who favor raising Social Security benefits. It backfired ignominiously.

Progressive groups mounted a powerful counterattack. Within days politicians started tumbling off the centrist bandwagon, and the president of the Center for American Progress, perhaps the most important of all the corporate-funded, centrist Democratic think tanks (with perhaps the best ties to the White House) spoke out against efforts to short-circuit discussions of inequality and whether the rich were paying their fair share of taxes.

With evidence like this, you don’t need a weatherman to tell you that political winds are shifting. But we are old enough to remember Nixon attorney general John Mitchell’s famous admonition to “watch what we do, not what we say.” For sure, the new mayors of Boston and New York genuinely hope to usher in real, progressive change in their cities, yet the larger national context gives us pause.

Reality Check

Three facts are crucial in understanding what is happening. Firstly, the national Democratic Party is in deep trouble as it faces the 2014 Congressional elections. The strong media framing of “populist” tendencies reflects a prior White House determination signaled by the President himself to move left to reenergize voters turned off by the serial disasters of 2013, including the economy’s continuing doldrums, public revulsion against surveillance, and the healthcare rollout debacle. Not for nothing has John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s one-time chief of staff and the key figure in the Center for American Progress, returned to the White House, even as he was being touted as Hillary Clinton’s likely adviser on handling inequality as a political issue.

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