Populism was the big winner in the Virginia election yesterday, after Terry McCauliffe ran on his past as a Bill Clinton Democrat and Glen Youngkin ran as a rightwing populist. As Glen Abernathy noted this morning in The Washington Post:
"The fact that parental rights in education became a central campaign issue shows that populism is still a potent element in U.S. politics. And in the Republican Party, even with Trump out of the White House, populism — not conservatism — remains the GOP's principal identity."
But populism can cut two ways, as the world saw in 1932 when Americans and Germans brought to power two very different types of populists: FDR and Hitler. Bernie Sanders' version of progressive populism is very, very different from Trump and Youngkin's racist populism.
Rightwing or "fascist" populism has overwhelmed numerous countries around the world, including Russia, Hungary and Turkey. America stands on the same edge, as Reaganism crumbles and something new must replace it.
But what will that be? The signs are troubling.
It's gotten so bad that when Americans believe a politician is listening to them and largely doing what they want, they'll overlook a multitude of personal sins. They'll even elect a rapist and convicted grifter to the highest office in the land if they think he's doing the people's will instead of the will of the wealthy elites.
While that may have been a controversial statement a generation ago — and the reason why Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, and Bill Clinton all went to great lengths to hide their extramarital sex lives — Trump has proven it as a modern political truth.
It's also an indication of how completely Americans think their government has detached itself from them: voters in 2016 were willing to throw in with a grifter rapist because they believed he'd put their interests above those of the morbidly rich.
This political moment has been brewing for decades.
The big break between Americans and their government began in the late 1970s when the US Supreme Court, in the Buckley and Bellotti decisions in 1976 and 1978, ruled that when billionaires and corporations (even foreign corporations) bought US politicians it was no longer corruption or bribery, but instead was First Amendment-protected "free speech."
The GOP jumped into the game with its SCOTUS-defined "new rules" in the 1980 election as Ronald Reagan rode a wave of Big Money into the White House. The Democratic Party, suffering from a loss of funding after Reagan destroyed their labor union base, also jumped into the newly defined political game in 1992 with Clinton's "Third Way" DLC.
As Reagan killed labor unions and moved the nation's tax burden from the very rich to working-class people with 18 middle class tax hikes and massive tax cuts for rich people, Americans began to notice their government growing more and more remote from their interests. Reagan undid regulations protecting the environment; people noticed their air and water getting dirtier and more likely to cause cancer. He sold off beloved public lands to drillers and miners for pennies on the dollar. He sided with employers over workers, bankers over debtors.
So Americans turned to Bill Clinton, who promised a "new covenant" with the American people, saying he came from poverty and a broken family and therefore felt their pain. Quickly, though, people figured out that he was just as remote as was Reagan. Clinton gutted the social safety net and declared "an end to welfare as we know it," kept taxes outrageously low on the morbidly rich (and partied with them at Davos), and presided over the second stage of the NAFTA/WTO neoliberal "free trade" experiment that ultimately wiped out American manufacturing and took Wal-Mart from "100% Made In The USA!" to "Low Prices, Low Wages, Everything Made in China."
The Supreme Court intervened again in 2000 and put George W. Bush into the White House, but he wasn't any better. He lied us into two wars to get himself re-elected, began the privatization of Medicare through the vicious Medicare Advantage scam, and handed trillions in taxes taken from working people to military contractors like those in his daddy's Carlyle Group.
The pressure was building. Middle class Americans knew they were now way in the back of the bus, as wages remained flat or fell in the face of 30 years of inflation, while those at the top of the corporate ladder had become richer than even the Pharaohs. People desperately hoped for a return to the normalcy of the New Deal/Great Society years when the middle class was rockin', so along came a charismatic new guy with a funny name and the sales pitch of "Hope and Change."
But Obama was also unable or unwilling to overturn the "new rules" the Supreme Court had given us in the 1970s; in fact, five conservatives on the Court doubled down on them with their 2010 Citizen's United decision, which made it even harder for regular people to run for public office while making it even easier for billionaires and corporations to buy and sell politicians. The best he could do was Obamacare, and conservatives on the Supreme Court made quick work of that, gutting it of its Medicare expansion the same way they gutted the Voting Rights Act.
By 2016, these "new rules" the Supreme Court had handed down — that rich people, and corporations could control the political process and override what the great mass of the people wanted — had brought the American electorate to a populist boiling point.
Bernie Sanders' progressive populist primary candidacy that year particularly roiled the waters, as he told people the painful truth — and they knew it was the truth — that the only reason they didn't have free college or healthcare was because rich people and big corporations wanted to keep ripping them off. The message was sinking in, and people were really, really, really pissed off and ready for change.
So when Donald Trump ran in the Republican primary as a progressive populist (with a racist edge) Republicans and Independents, particularly white voters, loved him.
Trump did a brilliant job of pretending to be a progressive populist.
When he lied thathe was going to raise taxes on rich people, they believed him. When he lied thathe was going to bring home the 60,000 factories that Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama had sent overseas, they cheered. When he lied thathe was beholden to no rich person because he was one himself and was funding his own campaign, they voted for him over the best and the brightest the GOP had to offer.
And Trump as president did the work that a populist would do to convince them it was true. He called out China for taking advantage of policies put into place by Reagan, Bush and Clinton. He traveled the country on a regular basis, meeting with the people in huge rallies, and told them he loved them and lied that he was their champion. He said he was going to keep American jobs in American hands by stopping immigrants from entering the country, and cut legal immigration to a trickle while brutally punishing those families who managed to make it into the country.
It was a fascist form of populism, but for about half of the American electorate it felt like progressive populism. And the rightwing media bubble kept them from the ugly realities of what Trump was really up to, as he cut taxes on rich people, let more poisons into our environment, suppressed wages, and crushed our kids' educational opportunities.
While Trump's racist and paramilitary base gets most of the attention, he represented a genuine populist moment in American history, one in some ways like Andrew Jackson's (and just as ignorant, brutal, and corrupt). His puppet-master, Steve Bannon, was and is a Goebbels-level populist PR and political arts practitioner, both intellectually and morally.
Democrats underestimated the power of the overall populist backlash against 40 years of sold-out politicians who took the deal the Supreme Court offered them.
Trump broke the GOP away from Reagan's neoliberal system: Democrats like Terry McCauliffe don't seem to have yet gotten the memo that they must do the same with their own party.
The neoliberal system Reagan and Clinton pioneered is collapsing under its own weight of corruption and bloated, obscene wealth; like flowers coming out of a cow patty, two new populist movements have been birthed.
One is progressive populism, reminiscent of FDR and Bernie Sanders. The other is fascist populism, reminiscent of Charles Lindberg and the man he defended, Adolf Hitler.
It should have been shockingly obvious to Democrats that something new had taken hold when the American people were willing to overlook Trump's 20+ rape and sexual assault charges, his bankruptcies and fraud convictions, his ties to Putin and attempt to bribe the president of Ukraine, his incompetent handling of the Covid pandemic, his payoffs to porn stars, the wild corruption in his cabinet as member after member was busted for self-dealing (5 criminal referrals), and his Big Lie about the 2020 election and fascist assault on the US Capitol.
But the Democratic Party as a whole missed it, although progressives within the Party totally understood what's going on and have worked hard to have the Party meet this progressive populist moment. But they're being sabatoged by the neoliberal old guard who're still deeply embedded in their wealthy and corporate donors' Citizen's United cocoon.
The simple reality is that Americans are so desperate to once again have politicians — even corrupt ones like Trump — who they believe care about them and act on their behalf that they'll overlook almost any character flaw and even major felonies.
Americans are sick and tired of politics as usual in this new world defined by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. They want populist politicians who think about their needs, talk to them about solutions to the country's problems, and are unafraid of taking on the rich and powerful.
Progressive populist politicians like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna, Mark Pocan, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have figured this out and stepped into that space. About half the Democratic Party is with them, and the populist progressive movement is vibrating with energy across the country.
Even President Joe Biden has figured this out, putting Bernie Sanders in charge of writing the Senate legislation for his Build Back Better program, promoting unionization, and championing programs to help average working families instead of the bankers Clinton favored or Obama's insurance companies.
But the Supreme Court's Citizen's United "new rules" of politics are still in place, and there are still politicians completely on the take. On the Republican side, it's pretty much the entire Party. On the Democratic side, it's most obviously Sinema and Manchin in the Senate and Schrader, Rice, Peters, Gottheimer and a large handful of others in the House.
If these Citizen's United piglets in the Democratic Party continue to suckle on the teat of Big Money and block genuine progressive change, we'll be right back where we were in 2016, as last night's Virginia election proves.
And Republicans know it: "Senator raised-fist" Josh Hawley, who wants to be America's first fully open fascist president so badly he can taste it, just published an op-ed in The New York Times calling for a reversal of the Reagan/Clinton neoliberal "free trade" agenda.
"Now we must change course," Hawley wrote. "We can rebuild what made this nation great in the first place by making things in America again." As Bob Dylan once said, it doesn't take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
If Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema continue to echo the neoliberal rightwing talking points of the Koch Network, Big Pharma, and Big Oil/Coal/Gas, Biden's repudiation of neoliberal Reaganism will go down in flames.
With it will go the chances of the Democratic Party in 2022 and 2024.
Instead of progressive populism bringing this country back to its core values of fairness and a government that meets average people's needs, we'll be looking face-to-face at the monster that has now consumed Russia, Hungary, The Philippines, Brazil and Turkey (among others): fascist populism.
And for those who reply that yesterday's election was just about good-old-fashioned-all-American-racism, I'd agree to an extent, but also refer you to the winners of the Virginia Lt. Governor and Attorney General statewide elections: African American rightwing populist Winsome Sears and Hispanic American rightwing populist Jason Miyares.
Neoliberalism is a wounded, dying animal. America is returning to populism, whether our politicians want it or not.
The question now is whether it'll be American progressive populism like that championed by Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, LBJ and now Biden, or a new American version of fascist populism like the movement led by Donald Trump and Glen Youngkin
To a large extent, at least over the short term, that choice is now in the hands of two Democratic senators.