Peter Bearse - THE RISE of a NEW POPULISM

A rising new populism can become the heart of an America rising anew. What, after all, do liberals and conservatives have in common? It’s the recognition of “We the People” as more than the opening lines of our Constitution. “Power to the People” is the title of a conservative book, not just a leftist line. “The American Way” and “The American Dream” resonate with those on both sides of the political aisle. Some commentators have recognized that there is a common core of concerns animating both Tea Party and Occupy movement activists. The core concern is failure of political “business as usual” to serve more than the “One Percent” of insiders, crony capitalists, the “Best and the Brightest”; and other elitists who frequent Wall Street, Washington, D.C. and foster the incestuous interconnections between and among them.

The rise of the new populism is driven by both pushes and pulls. Reactions are push forces. The kinds of reactions that have fostered past populist movements are at work again. These are primarily reactions to failures of the economy. What’s new, however, is the realization that economic failures are partly the result of political and governmental failures. Each set of hands greases the other. Or, as the infamous South Philadelphia Congressman liked to say: “Money talks and bullshit walks.” Campaign finance reform has failed. 

A meritocratic market economy has built-in tendencies to generate and increase inequalities in status, incomes and wealth. These tendencies are aggravated by a politics driven by money and media rather than people. The implications are downright troubling for the American Dream. Why? -- Because the tendencies imply that the great American middle class is not likely to regain either prominence or prosperity. The loss of over 40% of middle class wealth is not likely to be recouped by economic growth. Thus, a politics cheered on by the old mantra: “Lean to the center” is not likely to succeed.

A new populism, however, can succeed. It can cross lines, bring people together and surmount barriers. Conservatives are right in saying “class war” is not the answer. Liberals are right in claiming that an “off government” attitude won’t work. The attitude that crosses ideological lines is a radical pragmatism that recognizes that the U.S. of A. is the oldest, greatest, constitutional democratic republic in the world. It became so by being the most dynamic, flexible and innovative republic. Continued progress to fulfill the American Dream depends on tapping the creative imaginations, common sense, innovative capabilities and dynamic energies of all Americans. This is the pull side, to be expedited by the “crowd sourcing” power of the new IT social media.

The American people need to pull their full weight. We know from American history how this can happen. Challenged by crisis, war and injustice, great cross sections of “ordinary” Americans have risen up to do extraordinary things. Push and pull reinforce each other, as great challenge provides a big push.

Americans are especially pulled by opportunity. If they know their votes are more likely to count in close races, they are more prone to vote. If they know their voices will be heard or their actions noticed, they’re more likely to speak out or act up. The challenge of unsolved old problems and looming new ones is far too great for existing elites, ossified institutions and a corrupt, dysfunctional politics to solve. The best and the brightest have failed us. Only “We the People’ can save our republic and advance the American Dream. This not only spells a new populism. It should drive it. Reaction, too, is a push; but a new, people-based politics does not flow from the word “NO”.

So then, where is the new political wave, and how do we ride it? The Tea Party (TP) and Occupy Movements (OM) reveal the thrust of it. They are both populist forces representing diverse cross sections of the American public. The are reacting to economic and political failings of the American system is ways both similar and different. Similar? -- Yes, in that both see crony capitalism, corruption and institutional arterio-sclerosis as basic problems. Similar, in arising from the grassroots, wary of self-styled leaders. Different, too, though, in attitudes toward government and social issues. Unfortunately, the differences are being highlighted by a media that loves to divide and conquer so that the media and the “powers that be“ that they serve, not “We the People” end up as arbiters and winners of political power games. Thus, instead of talking issues, people in both groups are too often prone to throw labels and lavish stereotypes. 

If, however, leaders can arise to build bridges, a truly powerful new populism can arise that generates a new people-based politics and cross-class campaigns that build authority to govern for (a) change. Citizens turned off by politics-as-usual will abandon the tired, old, sclerotic political parties and look to swim with the force of a rising tide. The old republic we know and live can be given new life. The American Dream can live again. 


How “We the People” can truly “take back” our government [an Amazon e-book]. Email:; March 3, 2012.