Progressive Values vs. New Realities: A Report

Several DSA members participated in a weekend program titled "Progressive Values vs. New Realities: Populism, Fake News, and other Threats on Democracy." The program, held June 18-21, was sponsored by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Progressive Alliance, and the Party of European Socialists. There were about 20 attendees representing social democratic parties from Latin America, Asia, Europe, and Africa.

DSA speakers included Harold Meyerson, Hannah Zimmerman, and myself. Other American speakers included Robert Kuttner of "American Prospect," Jared Bernstein, formerly of the Economic Policy Institute, John Judis, author of "The Populist Explosion."

I participated in a panel titled "Alliances to Fight Populism" along with Hannah Zimmerman of Young Democratic Socialists and High School Progressives of America, Matthew Hanson of the Working Families Party, and Ianta Summers of the Women's March.

While the theme of the panel was on fighting populism, both Matthew Hanson and I said that fighting populism was not the goal of our organizations. Though we saw populism in both the Trump and Sanders campaigns, it is right-wing populism that represents a threat in American politics, and the democratic socialist populism of the Sanders campaign represents promise. We want to garner the enthusiasm and energy generated by the Sanders campaign to build stronger democratic socialist presence in the United States.

In the course of the discussion following the panel, the differences between politics in the United States and in other countries were reinforced. For example, I said that DSA was not a party, but that we were involved in electoral politics. In Europe, what the participants were calling left-populism --groups like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain -- operate not as nongovernmental organizations but as political parties. Judis in his talk and in his book describes populism as championing the people versus the elite. Left-wing populism has the bottom and middle arrayed against the top; right-wing populism is not simply the people versus the elite, but rather versus an elite that allegedly coddles or gives special treatment to another group on which the people can – and often have -- looked down.

In addition to the differences in party politics in the United States and internationally and the division between left and right populism, speakers also touched on some of the history of populism. Populism in the United States can be traced back to the 19th century populists fighting for economic justice. Since then, populists from Huey Long to George Wallace to Trump and Sanders have championed the people. In Europe, populism didn't become a force until the 1970s.

On a more practical note, the speakers on the "Alliances to Fight Populism" panel discussed work that was being undertaken with a goal to involve more people in "the Resistance" and particularly leading up to the 2018 election. The Working Families party has expanded to just under ten states and is working on encouraging progressive candidates to run. The Women's March is sponsoring teach-ins on issues and is doing canvassing. Hannah Zimmerman described her outreach work for the Women's March to high school students.

What can we learn from this? Apart from the different understanding of populism between the United States and the rest of the world, these groups, like the Socialist International (SI), are mostly parties contending (more or less) for power. Thus, their perspective is very different from ours. I'm sure they would love to have a connection to Bernie Sanders and/or other officials in the United States. But if that isn't possible, they want to connect with the next best thing. It's interesting that they had a panel with NGOs from the United States. They want to make some connection, but I don't know that it goes very far.

I think that it would be useful to maintain some contact with these organizations as with the SI and other international groups. I gather they are somewhat to the right of the SI, but given the SI's disarray that might not be meaningful. If they have meetings in the United States and someone is available to attend, we should send them, as we should for other groups. If they have meetings outside the United States and someone wants to pay their own way, they could be our delegate. Beyond that, I think our main effort on international issues should be advocating for a progressive foreign policy (climate, development, conflict issues, etc.), but we probably won't get that far in the near future.

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