Populism Sells: Now How About the Real Thing?
Albany Times Union, August 29, 2000
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, August 24, 2000
Al Gore's flirtation with populist themes seems to have breathed new life into a Presidential campaign that has been about as bipartisan boring as any in American history.
We sure needed it. Gore's attacks on corporate excesses were actually an understatement. America is the last developed nation where the insurance industry holds a veto power over national health insurance, leaving one-sixth of the population without coverage. Or pharmaceutical companies can dictate the prices of life-saving drugs, without regard to the social, public health, or even fiscal consequences of their profiteering.
Mr. Gore didn't put forth any reforms that would challenge this power of the big drug companies, much less a proposal for national health insurance. But he did say that "sometimes you have to be willing to stand up and say no" to these companies so that "families can have a better life."
He could have added that the richest one percent of households more than doubled their real, after-tax income over the last twenty years, while wages for the majority of the labor force barely held constant. Even over the last year, at the peak of America's longest-running economic expansion, the average real wage has not gone up.
But he didn't, and this burst of populism-- despite its contribution to Mr. Gore's post-convention bounce in the polls-- may prove as ephemeral as a round of fourth of July fireworks. Why? For one thing, it's not easy to believe he would really bite the hands that feed him and his party so generously.
Mr. Gore's running mate Joe Lieberman leads the Senate in campaign contributions from insurance companies, and scores a solid second from pharmaceuticals. Add in Gore's family fortune in Occidental Petroleum, and you have just about all of the industries that he has pledged to fight, just waiting to cozy up and be pals again after the election-year posturing is over.
On the theory that people in glass houses should not throw stones, the Bush campaign has refrained from making this point. They have lobbed puffballs instead, accusing the Gore campaign of engaging in "class warfare." But after decades of one-sided class warfare against working and poor people-- union busting, regressive trade agreements, capital gains tax cuts, and "welfare reform,"-- it's hard to castigate someone for suggesting that the victims of this warfare need some relief. Nor would it help the Bush campaign to point out that Mr. Reinvented Populist has supported most of the policies that have hurt the "working families" that he now champions.
Still, a populist campaign has its risks. He who stirreth up the masses along these lines might find that they prefer the genuine article: Ralph Nader.
Nader doesn't just talk about "fighting for you," he's done it for more than 30 years. His work has created the modern consumer movement, and helped force the government to pay attention to auto safety, the environment, and the effects of trade policy on workers.
Nader is now running for president in order to "wrest control of our democracy from the corporate government and restore it to the political government under the control of citizens."
For many that might seem too ambitious a task. But given a choice between someone who has become famous through hard work, intelligence, courage, and standing up for the interests of the average American-- versus two men who made the right choice of parents and pandered to rich contributors-- millions of voters would see it as a no-brainer. Not to mention the equally large group of non-voters.
Imagine: a president whose integrity is unimpeachable, beholden to no one but the electorate. It’s not impossible. Stranger things have happened: who would have thought that Nelson Mandela would one day be president of South Africa, while he was serving his twenty-seventh year in prison?
Gore is hoping that most voters will never hear anything about Nader's candidacy. This could happen if, as planned, he is excluded from the presidential debates.
The debates are controlled by former Democratic and Republican party leaders, and financed with money from corporations like Anheuser-Busch and Phillip Morris. These people don't want Nader in there for obvious reasons-- look what happened when Jesse Ventura, then polling at 10 percent, was allowed into the gubernatorial debates in Minnesota. He won.
On a recent ABC talk show, Cokie Roberts asked Nader what he thought of the idea of participating in the first debate, with continued participation depending on how his poll numbers moved. "That would be a start," said Nader, and he referred listeners to his web site (www.votenader.org) to find out how they could get involved in making it happen.
Real populism could be just a mouse-click away.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of the forthcoming book Failed: What the "Experts" Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).