Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Populist and Progressive Caucuses

The U.S. Congress is organized by caucuses:  groups of Representatives and Senators that meet together to work for legislative agendas.  Even the two major political parties, in the person of their elected members of Congress, are referred to as the Democratic caucus and the Republican caucus.  But there are numerous other caucuses:  The Congressional Black Caucus is composed of African-American Representatives and Senators.  The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is similar for Hispanic members (although much smaller), a caucus to address the specific concerns of minority constituents.  But most caucuses are ideological:  The “centrist” Democratic Leadership Caucus (DLC) which produced Bill Clinton (and I tend to look askance at as the “corporate Democrats); the “Out of Iraq” caucus formed to put pressure on the Bush administration to end the Iraq War (and now on the Obama admin. to speed up the troop removal); the “Blue Dog” Democratic caucus (which is composed of fiscally conservative budget hawks).  The largest caucus, believe it or not, is the Progressive Caucus(71 members)–but they are stronger in the House of Representatives than in the Senate.

Well, now there is a brand new caucus, the Populist Caucus.  So far, only Democrats have joined, but the caucus is open to all who seek to advance an economically populist agenda.  “Populism” is a pragmatic ideology (or impulse–it may not be well enough defined to be an ideology) that stands up for “the little guy (or gal)” against elites or entrenched interests, especially economic elites.  There can be dangerous dimensions to populism since it stays close to the concerns of ordinary people:  In the past progressive populist movements have been divided by racism and “nativism,” the anti-immigrant prejudice.

But progressive economic populism has taken on a resurgence in our day.  The resurgence began in the U.S. in 2005–as an angry reaction to the government’s poor response to Hurricane Katrina.  In the wake of the revelations concerning Abu Ghraib (and, later, concerning Guantanemo Bay) and of the missing WMD, the American public began to feel deceived about the war in Iraq. Thus, a populist anti-war movement, involving soldiers and veterans and family members of the military, combined with the  traditional peace movement.  It was this populist uprising that led to the Democrats reclaiming the majority in Congress in 2006—even though most of the elected Democrats were not (then) populists and most of the mainstream media and the political classes did not understand the populist nature of the uprising.  Consider three Democratic Senators that were elected for the first time in ’06 in races they were not expected to win: Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA).  All three were in states thought to be Republican strongholds: Montana was part of the West that is turning Democratic, but in ’06 it still looked pretty Republican.  Tester was not a politician, but a wind farmer who sought to revitalize Montana through green energy–a populist environmentalism that worked to combine unlikely allies: ranchers and environmentalists against rich developers destroying the land.  Jim Webb was a former independent (who had served as Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy) who had often voted Republican in a traditional Republican southern state.  A fiscal conservative who is pro-military (though not a hawk and a fierce opponent of the Iraq war) and a conservative on gun issues–but he ran as a Democrat for the Senate because of the exploitation of the poor.  Economic justice for ordinary people, says Webb, should be the heart and soul of the Democratic people.  (His strong passion for prison reform is rooted in this economic populism, too, since we are wasting an entire generation.) Sherrod Brown was already a Democratic Congressman and a progressive–but Ohio in ’06 was still considered friendlier to Republicans than Democrats–certainly than progressive Democrats.  Yet Brown won by sticking close to economic populist issues.

Very different states and very different people–but united by a concern for economic populism.  Since ’06, the populist movement has grown. And the economic crisis has increased it.  The anger that ordinary people feel toward the rich (especially the rich who created the mess and then use our money for their selfish ends) is a populist anger.  The grilling of the Bank CEOs in Congress yesterday is a result of that rising populist tide. (The CEOs now understand THAT the public is furious–but they have lived for so long in their own world that they still seem not to understand WHY.  Like the 2 Wall Street firms that were caught on tape still giving out cash awards–but no longer calling them bonuses!  As if “re-branding” will stave off populist anger.)

Well, now this rising populism has resulted in at least one organization:  The Congressional Populist Caucus.   It will give voice to the populist anger at the economic crisis and the opaque bank bailout.  It tried to put a “Buy American” provision into the stimulus package (cut out by the 3 Senate Republicans as part of their price for voting for it–very patriotic).  They will still try some form of encouraging “Buy American” policies while hoping to avoid longterm protectionist tariffs that have negative longterm economic consequences.  They want to revisit trade policies with a focus on Fair Trade in place of “free trade.”   Universal healthcare and middle-class tax reform (and closing tax loopholes for rich people and corporations) will also dominate the agenda.  I am contacting them to promote the Employee Free Choice Act and Mass Transit. I am very glad to see my own Congressman (elected in that populist year, ‘o6), John Yarmuth (D-KY), among its first members.  Here are the initial 21 members of the new caucus: 

Reps.  Michael Arcun (D-NY); Peter DeFazio (D-OR); Betty Sutton (D-OH); Bruce Braley (D-IA), who will chair the caucus; Leonard Boswell (D-IA); Steve Cohen (D-TN); Joe Courtney (D-CT); Keith Ellison (D-MN), elected in ’06 as the first Muslim U.S. Congressman (now there are 2); Bob Filner (D-CA); Phil Hare (D-IL); Mazie Hirono (D-HI); Hank Johnson (D-GA); Steve Kagan (D-WI); David Loebsak (D-IA); Eric Massa (D-NY); Linda Sanchez (D-CA); Jan Schackowsky (D-IL), who may challenge Sen. Roland Burris (D-IL) in ’10 for Obama’s old Senate seat; Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH); Peter Welch (D-VT), and John Yarmuth (D-KY).  I expect more to join, including the aforementioned  3 Senators.

There is some overlap with the Progressive Caucus, but not all Populists would identify as Progressive (or liberal) and vice versa. ( The late Molly Ivins would be a great example of a progressive populist. Ted Kennedy, while certainly a progressive, is not really populist, coming from such “blue-blood” stock.  Sarah Palin is populist, but NOT progressive at all. John McCain attempted to fake populism with his “Joe the Plumber” idiocy–but when Samuel Joseph Wurzelburger turned out not to be a plumber–to be fake about everything, the tactic blew up in McCain’s face.  Most Republicans do “faux populism” well–but I think Palin truly is a populist–though a conservative or even reactionary one.)  See how many members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus below you find also in the new Populist Caucus:

Senate member: Bernie Sanders (I-VT).  Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Tom Udall (D-NM) were Progressive members before being elected to the Senate, but the Senate doesn’t work in caucuses as much as the House.  The late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) was a member until his 2002 death in a plane crash.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was a member until being elected House Minority Leader in ’04.  As Minority Leader and then as Speaker, she has recused herself from membership in any of the ideological caucuses.

Current House members:  Neil Abercrombie (D-HI); Tammy Baldwin (D-WI); Xavier Bacerra (D-CA); Madeleine Bordallo (GU-AL), at-large, nonvoting member from Guam; Robert Brady (D-PA); Corrine Brown (D-FL); Michael Capuano (D-MA); Andre Carson (D-IN) (2nd Muslim Congressperson); Donna Christensen (VI-AL), at-large, nonvoting member from the U.S. Virgin Islands; Yvette Clarke (D-NY); William “Lacy” Clay (D-MO); Emmanuel Cleaver (D-MO); Steve Cohen (D-TN); John Conyers (D-MI); Danny Davis (D-IL); Peter DeFazio (D-OR); Rosa DeLauro (D-CT); Donna Edwards (D-MD); Keith Ellison (D-MN); Sam Farr (D-CA); Chaka Fattah (D-PA); Bob Filner (D-CA); Barnie Frank (D-MA); Marcia Fudge (D-OH); Alan Grayson (D-FL); Luis Gutierrez (D-IL); John Hall (D-NY); Phil Hare (D-IL); Maurice Hinchey (D-NY); Michael Honda (D-CA); Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL); Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX); Hank Johnson (D-GA); Marcy Kaptur (D-OH); Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-MI); Barbara Lee (D-CA), formerly co-chair, now the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus; John Lewis (D-GA);  David Loebsak (D-IA); Carolyn Maloney (D-NY); Ed Markey (D-MA); Jim McDermott (D-WA); James McGovern (D-MA); George Miller (D-CA); Gwen Moore (D-WI); Jerrold Nadler (D-NY); Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D-DC), nonvoting delegate; John Olver (D-MA); Ed Pastor (D-AZ); Donald Payne (D-NJ); Chellie Pingree (D-ME); Charles Rangel (D-NY); Laura Richardson (D-CA); Bobby Rush (D-IL); Linda Sanchez (D-CA); Jan Schakowsky (D-IL); Jose Serrano (D-NY); Pete Stark (D-CA); Louise Slaughter (D-NY); Bennie Thompson (D-MS); John Tierney (D-MA); Nydia Velasquez (D-NY); Maxine Waters (D-CA); Mel Watt (D-NC); Henry Waxman (D-CA); Peter Welch (D-VT); Robert Wexler (D-FL).

But as important as I think the Progressive and Populist caucuses are in Congress, I think it is far more important for there to be a progressive populist MOVEMENT throughout the country.

February 14, 2009 - Posted by | citizenship, democracy, U.S. politics


  1. Michael — Nice to make your acquaintance through this blog. It is indeed exciting to witness the revival of progressive populism (PP) and to be a part of it. After 14 years in the Iowa Legislature and a campaign for governor (never hiding my PP colors), I ran for U.S. Congress last year against Leonard Boswell. He’s Blue Dog to the core, and his decision to join the Populist Caucus is entirely political.

    Comment by Ed Fallon | February 14, 2009

  2. Well, Ed, then I hope you have better luck in 2010! Maybe if Grassley retires, you can make a successful progressive populist run for the U.S. Senate! (If Grassley doesn’t retire, though, I don’t like your odds! Polling shows him winning reelection handily if he wants it, but he’s on the retirement watch for a reason!) Iowa is a natural state for populists and is trending more progressive in recent years.

    Oh–and thanks to you and the rest of Iowa for our new president. Without his first place finish in the Iowa caucuses, Obama wouldn’t have had a chance. We owe you guys!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 14, 2009

  3. It is time for a populist caucus in Congress and also a grassroots movement supporting economic justice for working families. There are a lot of individuals who are socially traditionalist and/or pro-military and yet oppose big business domination of our government.

    Populism and progressivism certainly can overlap but as you point out are often two different things. Populist or progressive, the most important priority is to move this nation away from the failed free market policies that have been so destructive to working Americans. Especially during hard economic times, we need to focus on the pocketbook issues.

    Comment by RD | February 15, 2009

  4. Well, economic justice for ordinary people is near the top of my priorities, which is why I’m a populist. But other things are also importannt, RD, like peacemaking, protecting the environment, racial justice, ending sexism and heterosexism, and protecting human rights and civil liberties. Not all of those would be considered populist causes, but all are progressive. I do worry about the way that past versions of populism have degenerated into racist or anti-immigrant impulses–especially in hard times. Fascism began as a populist movement, too. So, it is important that the current populism be intentionally multi-cultural and pushed in progressive directions.

    For instance, even though I support a “Buy American” publicity campaign and some SMALL protectionist measures (especially for the auto industry) in these times, I worry about this developing into fierce protectionism. 1) Protectionism eventually prolonged the Great Depression. Trade is always better in the long run and we are never going to get rid of our trade deficit with high tariffs, for instance. 2) Buy American impulses, though helpful in the short run, can VERY easily turn into nativist, anti-immigrant fear of the other–which leads to demonizing minorities at home and aggressive imperialist military policies abroad. We had enough of that under Bush. WE MUST make sure that contemporary populism stays PROGRESSIVE.,

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 15, 2009

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