Populism: bigoted scapegoating or multiracial progressivism?


Populism isn’t a coherent ideology, argues John Judis, but “a way of thinking” about politics that can be employed by the left, right or center. In The Populist Explosion, he writes:

“Left-wing populists champion the people against an elite or establishment. Theirs is a vertical politics of the bottom and middle arrayed against the top. Right-wing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants. Left-wing populism is dyadic. Right-wing populism is triadic. It looks upward, but also down on an out group.”

Populist progressives won quite a few victories in the Democratic primaries on March 17. Conservative super PACs spent enormous sums to defeat them. Consider the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania: John Fetterman, the state’s lieutentant governor, will be the party’s U.S. Senate candidate for the seat currently held by a retiring Republican, Pat Toomey. Fetterman’s an unusual politician with a straightforward speaking style, casual dress, shaved head and tattoos. 

Fetterman supports Medicare for All, abortion rights, higher taxes on the rich, marijuana legalization and a $15 hour minimum wage. He denounces the filibuster and the obstruction of Build
Back Better.

Alexander Sammon of The American Prospect notes that Fetterman’s opponent, Conor Lamb, a Pittsburgh-area congressman, “had a not-insignificant record of voting against the party,” “a close personal relationship with Sen. Joe Manchin, the filibuster’s Democratic face,” and “was unable to make the case [for himself as] a Democrat who would actually advance the Democratic agenda.”

Fetterman says, “This is the most important race in the country. Control of the Senate is going to come down to Pennsylvania, and we have to flip this seat.” Lamb has since pledged his support for Fetterman, saying, “Our entire democracy is on the line in November.” 

Are Lamb’s comments unnecessarily hyperbolic? In many primary races, Republican voters chose candidates who parrot Trump’s election lies and who seem determined to exert enormous political control over voting systems. 

Right-wing populism is going off the rails. It is getting extraordinarily vicious and stupid. Republican politicians and Fox News yakkers say that the Biden administration is stealing scarce infant formula and giving it to migrant babies and could be deliberately importing fentanyl to murder supporters of Trump. 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Biden was giving “baby formula to illegal immigrants while mothers and fathers stare at empty grocery store shelves in a panic.”

The truth is that the federal government is required by law to provide nourishment to temporarily detained migrant babies. Starvation isn’t an option. Strangely enough, even the Trump administration did the same thing. (Did anyone tell Stephen Miller?) This is a tiny population of babies.

The formula shortage is serious but it is the result of monopoly power, market and supply-chain failure. Republicans don’t seem to be too interested in resolving that problem or much of anything else. 

When Democrats in the House voted to provide $28 million in aid to the FDA to address the formula shortage, 192 Republicans opposed the measure. That bunch included House GOP leaders Kevin McCarthy, Steve Scalise and Elise Stefanik (who had just been yelping that the Democrats weren’t doing enough).

It’s quite alarming how much the “Great Replacement Theory” advocated by the Buffalo mass murderer is being mainstreamed by GOP leaders and Fox News. Tucker Carlson, America’s most popular cable news host, has promoted this theory over 400 times, according to the New York Times. It has inspired numerous massacres of demonized minorities around the world.

Kathleen Belew, historian of the violent far right, says that the theory is “the latest incarnation of an old idea: the belief that elites are attempting to destroy the white race by overwhelming it with nonwhite groups and thinning them out with interbreeding until white people no longer exist.”

It isn’t just about immigration. She explains: “This belief transforms social issues into direct threats: Immigration is a problem because immigrants will outbreed the white population. Abortion is a problem because white babies will be aborted. L.G.B.T.Q. rights and feminism will take women from the home and decrease the white birthrate. Integration, intermarriage and even the presence of Black people distant from a white community—an issue apparently of keen interest in the Buffalo attack—are seen as a threat to the white birthrate through the threat of miscegenation.”

The far right will continue to kill, but they are also hoping to control the government. 

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