Populism 101

Digby’s been doing some great blogging on the illegal workers front, but he poses a question in his latest post that seems pretty obvious to me :

That’s a problem for us because no matter how tempting it might be to go and grab those Virginians who are so disenchanted with George Bush and promise to close the borders and solve their problems: nobody has yet figured out how (short of an economic catastrophe so huge that people will disregard everything else) we can keep a coalition of liberals, workers, urbanites, racial minorities and nativist immigrant bashers in the same tent.
. . .
Democrats can look to the future and find a populist message that doesn’t cater to white fear and tendencies to scapegoat minorities. And we can add the Hispanic community permanently into our coalition, denying Karl Rove his most coveted goal. Or we can take the easy way out and catch a few Bubbas until the economy turns around, at which point they’ll go right back home to the party that really knows how to feed their worst instincts on regular basis — the Republicans.

Why is this a problem?? What do all of these groups have in common? They’re willing to work hard to make a decent living. I don’t mean to go all Lakoff on you guys, but this issue is framed incorrectly and it will always hurt Democrats the way it’s discussed now. It’s not about American citizens vs. illegal immigrants, it’s about employers vs. labor.

The best thing Democrats can do is to stop pretending that immigrants are the bad guys here. I hate to plagiarize myself here, but people wouldn’t be flooding across the border if there wasn’t a steady supply of crooked employers willing to exploit them. If you got serious about stopping these scumbags, the borders would suddenly become a lot less porous. Why spend all of our time attacking the symptoms if we’re going to ignore the disease?We shouldn’t waste so much time kicking people out when the best long-term solution is to stop them from wanting to come over here in the first place.

Y’know, if we had a nickel for every time a politician quoted Martin Luther King, we’d all be rich enough to vote Republican. It makes sense since King was such a quotable guy, but going back to Digby’s question about how to unite the various breeds of pissed off working class voters, one figure seems to be left out of the mix : Cesar Chavez. Through his commitment to non-violence and his leadership of the labor movement in California, Chavez has become a hero for millions of workers, yet he’s rarely mentioned by politicians (especially to non-Hispanic audiences). He had a dream too.

Since politicians these days are only able to speak in sound-bytes and pander to audiences, here’s a few choice quotes from Chavez :

“History will judge societies and governments— and their institutions— not by how big they are or how well they serve the rich and the powerful, but by how effectively they respond to the needs of the poor and the helpless.”

“I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice. To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us to be men!”

“Non-violence is not inaction. It is not discussion. It is not for the timid or weak… Non-violence is hard work. It is the willingness to sacrifice. It is the patience to win.”

“You are never strong enough that you don’t need any help.”

If you want to start appealing to both the legal and illegal segments of the working class, bridge the cultural divide, and attract Hispanic voters, this is a good start. If you want to do even better, try reading more than a few quotes. In reading about Cesar Chavez. you might even rediscover that spark that made you want to devote your lives to public service in the first place.

11 thoughts on “Populism 101

  1. Great post, Greg. although the lack of comments makes me think I may be the only reader who thinks so.
    P.S. How should we go about making things hot for criminal employers? There are deep waters here…

  2. Thank you! When I was reading Digby’s excellent post, I kept wondering why he didn’t talk about the fact that we arrest the workers rather than the greedy scumbags who hire them and treat them like dirt.

    Hey, illegals are great! They’re afraid to complain, they daren’t unionize, and if anyone annoys you it’s easy to just tip off l’immigracion and get them rounded up.

    You know, it’s so hard to get good help these days, and a population that automatically bows their heads and shuffles is so much easier to control.

    Cheap Labor Conservatives: They know how to solve our problems.

  3. Illegal immigration is just that – illegal. Catch em, punish em, send em home. That goes for the people illegally hiring them as well. But Avedon is right – Conservatives want easily controlled slave labor, and they happen to be in charge right now.

  4. I think that people are afraid to look at the wider issues. I more-or-less took fiscal conservativism on faith long after I had admitted that I wasn’t a social conservative – that is, I treated it the way most churchgoing Catholics treat most doctrine, something you don’t question because you don’t think about it because it isn’t relevant to your daily life.

    But a combination of doing the math and realizing that working a full time job as a technoserf, and then a second job on top of that, at double minimum wage, I was *still* falling farther and farther behind just keeping up with my student loan payments (while my bosses bought new SUVs and new houses and went to Aruba regularly), and reading NYT articles about exploitation of workers in developing nations, and listening to the BBC on the way home, I began to hve a better understanding of the anti-globalization protests and to formulate in my mind what I call “The problem of World Helotry” and a synthesis of social justice issues which informs all my posts – and which was key to putting together the pieces of the Money Trail that ties the “Social Conservative” side with the “Fiscal Conservative” and “Libertarian” sides of the grand coalition that is currently and for many years now running this country.

    And the problem of the Charitable Solutions solution, which are nothing but bandaids on an amputation, however much they may make upper & middle class Americans and Europeans *feel* better about themselves, the assuaging of Bourgeois Guilt is not particularly helpful to the world.

    People don’t want to dig into it, because questioning any of the premises, like questioning the “Strong on Defense!” mantra and asking how spending so much more of our budget than anyone else in the world, creating poverty at home to enforce helotry abroad, actually makes us *safer* – opens an industrial sized kettle of carnivorous bloodworms.

    People don’t want to think about it, because then they’d have to face the problems of how their lifestyles – the ability to buy cheap coffee and sugar and bread even tho’ its trucked many thousands of miles, the “right” to cheap gasoline, to have clothes off the rack that cost less than an hour of your salary (if you are a history buff, it’s easier to put this all in perspective) and every other invisible absorbed costs of our infrastructure – are subsidized by the misery and essential slavery of strangers, either invisible at home by social divides and ghettoization, or kept far away by the miracle of outsourcing which is the “miracle” of cheap plentiful petroleum…

    It’s the same reason that the Founding Fathers and their subsequent generations of Establishment refused to address and stop slavery until it was too late.

    Much easier to point to how the opposition was full of dirty hippies – romantic poets and free love types and these radical Wollenstonecraft feminists, atheists and liberal Christians and Theosophists and all the rest of the weirdos, with no stake in Society and no Respect for Tradition, the way New England pundit Orestes Brownson justified his opposition to Abolition.

    Because dismantling the whole system that kept cheap raw materials flowing from Port of New Orleans to Manchester and Lowell to keep our textile industry competetive with England’s – raw materials only cheap because of the cheap labour down south – was unthinkable, as unthknable as paying a living wage to striking New England women in the 1840s instead of importing dirt-poor French Canadians and denying them the right to vote based on the fact that they didn’t speak English…

    Ordinary Americans wouldn’t stand for not being able to buy cheap cotton goods, and wealthy Americans wouldn’t have been able to keep their carriages and massive Italianate mansions. Better to fight a war, slaughter hundreds of thousands and destroy half our own infrastructure – and in the end, for all the talk of liberty, keep the same people as helots, though the fiction that everyone was free and equal could now be maintained more easily.

  5. Excellent post. Great perspective. There is a vicious cycle perpetuated by the “alienation” of human beings that can be overcome by instead treating people as desperate hard-workers. I love how Bush is able to pander to small business owners trying to compete in the global economy by calling for a “guest worker” program, wink wink, while at the same time, if a democrat used that phrase, even the most centrist republican would die laughing.

    But as the world gets smaller, and more and more business sectors seize the opportunity presented by outsourcing, our middle and lower economic classes will continue to be squeezed tighter until the cost of freight tips the scales (rather than wages). Neither party is likely to find a voice that can mollify the cries of people constantly adjusting to fewer economic choices, when part of being American is the promise of moving up through hard work, not down. Xenophobia will always exist when it’s us vs. them. We need to demonstrate our grasp of macroeconomic reality, and understand that when it comes to those who would migrate to America in search of a better life, “there, but for the grace of God.” Some of us don’t realize what it takes to remain a country to which people want to migrate.

    Democrats can demonstrate that they understand the challenge of global competition, and engage with the independents’ and moderates’ faith in the “Can Do” attitudes of Americans to work harder and innovate more than any other country on Earth. We enjoy the inestimable advantage of the finest judicial system in the world combined with the freedom to question authority and, minus universal wi-fi, a fully developed infrastruture.

    When it comes to illegal immigrants, we need to pledge to confront the problem in the most pragmatic and ethically consistent way- by going after the employers who hire them in tougher ways. At the same time, we should appreciate the risk illegal immigrants take and the hard work they do. These are people not without their own “Can Do” attitude.

    We need to paint a picture of what our economy is likely to look like should we do nothing in preparation of the exponential increase in outsourcing as the developing world (China and India foremost among them) realizes its organic potential (education, communication, highways, energy, etc.). We then need to paint a picture of what our country could look like if we prioritize now, and teach our children to be global competitors as well as global citizens.

  6. Re: the Chavez comments, Jesus said a lot of that kind of stuff, too. Maybe win over a few Republicans by quoting Jesus, too. “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me… when I was hungry, you gave me to eat; when I was naked, you gave me your coat, when I was in prison, you came to me…” etc.

    Re: the illegals, why not make more immigration legal? What is the problem? The work obviously needs to be done. Once they get here, they use services, but also they start working and pay taxes; overall, they give more than they take. Why are the immigration limits so much lower than they should be? 11,000+ years ago, no one was on this continent; everyone here immigrated or descended from an immigrant (voluntarily or involuntarily). Why are we so greedy and selfish?

  7. Just now saw your point about “the new indentured servitude”…. first place I’ve seen that. Very good. That point needs wider circulation… you should post that on a lot of other blogs when this issue arises, and get it circulated widely.

    I am now reconsidering what I just said about opening the floodgates and letting everyone move here.

  8. ¡ Sí, sí señor !

    Not enough illegal aliens here yet. Must get more. Más, más.

    Some Americanos will have to leave – go to Madagascar, or somewhere. Clear some room for us. Learn Spanish. Buy an accordion. Shut up.

    Ricardo Montal-Williams

  9. An idea that would work in tandem with your idea is to push for better working conditions and worker rights in other countries. If Mexicans could get decent jobs in Mexico they would stay there. Also , it wouldn’t hurt to put the international back in the union movement and get people to realize that foreign workers aren’t the enemy but rather the corporations that exploit all workers here and abroad.