Progressive Populism: Socialism’s Latest Marketing Campaign

There’s been an undeniably increased usage among leftist pundits since Trump’s election of the term “progressive populism.”  (Here, here, here…)

Given the context of the times, it’s a curious marriage of words for the left, which is perhaps why their more frequent juxtaposition seems unusual.  After all, to the extent that we heard them term “populism” from the leftist propaganda machine in the last year, it was most often meant to be taken as synonymous with racism, sexism, nativism, Islamophobia, homophobia, you name it.  Particularly, they’ve employed the word to describe Trump, Brexit, and opposition to the establishment politics in France and Germany.  In other words, it had become quite clear that the current vein of “populism” represented the bane of leftists’ vision of the multi-culti fantasy and globalist governance, i.e., “progress.”

Yet seemingly overnight, it has become the preferred method of identification of the movement that Bernie Sanders’s candidacy represented, and leftists everywhere are employing it.  Over at Salon, Jonathan Matthew Smucker gives us a glimpse into the reason for this packaging of the terms.  “So then,” he wonders, “what undermines the power of right-wing populism? Progressive populism.  By telling a more compelling story about the causes and culprits of working people’s woes, progressive populists like Bernie Sanders are able to weaken one of the central pillars of right-wing populist appeal.”

Who is Jonathan Matthew Smucker, you ask?  Why, a “political organizer and strategist” seeking a doctorate in sociology at UC Berkeley, of course.  And we all know that no one knows the plight of “working people” more than just such a man, who touts the merits of a septuagenarian, self-avowed socialist, who was a “ne’er do well into his late 30’s.” A man who, after having failed spectacularly in an attempted career at carpentry and stints on unemployment, later went on to a life as the “angry radical and agitator” he has become.

This is the man whose ideas the progressive left hopes all working Americans will rally around? The newly self-identified progressive populists seem to think so. 

And we Americans might think that strange.  But history disagrees.

First, it’s important to know that what is meant by “progressive populism” is actually just socialism, pure and simple.  This should not be a stretch, as Sanders is often cited as the standard bearer of “progressive populism,” and he has proclaimed himself a socialist. 

The recent and frequent description of their ideology as “populist” in America is just a late, feeble attempt by the radical left to extract the value of the term’s obvious popularity, despite having tried and failed miserably to devalue it in 2016.   

Once we understand that “progressive populism” is just the latest attempt to rebrand socialism, it’s easy to see that Sanders is not an unlikely leader for a socialist movement, and if he is, it’s only due to his advanced age. 

It will forever be among the greatest mysteries of our little window on human history that the most powerful authoritarian leaders of the twentieth century nearly always rose to power claiming to understand and care about the plight of the working class, despite having never actually worked themselves (or having never been successful at it, anyway).

Always, they have been educated political theorists, and rarely, if ever, did they perform work that would be suggestive of their inclusion in the “working class” that they hoped to champion.

Vladimir Lenin, for example, was born to an upper-middle class family, earned a law degree, and immediately became a party agitator at the age of 23. 

His successor, Josef Stalin, attended seminary school before being expelled, and worked as a part time clerk before going becoming a full time revolutionary, writing and distributing propaganda for the Bolsheviks.  He was 25. 

Mao Zedong was born to wealthy farmers, and tried and failed at becoming a police officer, lawyer, economist, and soap producer before getting a job as assistant to the librarian at Peking University.  By 28, he had chartered branches of the Communist Party of China and the Socialist Youth Corps, and began operating a bookstore to distribute the propaganda. 

Fidel Castro was the son of a rich farmer, he attended the University of Havana and began studying law.  Just two years later, he had begun leading student protests and speaking publicly about income inequality in Cuba.

This list could go on and on with similar correlations to be found.  But suffice it to say, there’s nothing strange about Bernie being the leader of an ideological movement that has always found its leaders among radical political thinkers who look to redistribute the value created by others.  Again, except for his advanced age, he’s extraordinarily common for a socialist leader of any such movement. 

But here’s what the left continues to miss about Trump’s ascendancy.  As I observed last year, Donald Trump is far from common, but he has far more in common with the common man than Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, et al.  The average American sees Trump as a man who has spent his life doing things rather than thinking about things.

This is a huge distinction.  While the radical leftist has spent his or her entire life hectoring Americans about the lives they should lead, dictating how much money they should reasonably earn, and orchestrating a cultural shift toward their radical direction and away from traditional American values, Trump has spent his life creating wealth and value, living the American dream through hard work, talent, and ambition.

The American people, in a populist electoral uprising, have just rejected the Democrat platform of transforming America to conform with a radical leftist’s vision.  It’s comical that some among the left refuse to believe that fact, considering that Trump won with the omnipresent slogan of “Make America Great Again.”  And the left’s answer to that is to capture the populist sentiment by having lifelong do-nothing socialists promote an even more identity-altering platform that is left of even the previous administration?

The radical left’s idea here, no doubt, is the capture the spirit of the Tea Party, the inception of which in 2009 signaled the beginning of the Democrats’ most recent end, culminating with Trump’s populist victory.  They hope that the new “progressive populism” will now signal the demise of Trump’s brand of populism.

There is a distinct difference here which thwarts the prospects of their success, however, and it is not hard to see.  The Tea Party sought to stop the transformation of our culture and our social contract.  They believed that the federal government had exceeded its tether in accordance with that social contract, and sought to rein in its power.  This was not an idea that is foreign to America’s character.  In fact, it’s a fundamental trait of who we are, and have always been.

Socialism, however, absolutely is a foreign concept.  Yet the radical left is doubling down on the ideas that caused them to lose in 2016, seeking to transform our culture and our social contract by giving the federal government the power to endlessly sluice our wealth, abolish all student debt, subsidize healthcare for all, make childcare and college “free,” and all the other silly fantasies that would be even further from the realm of possibility if not for the individuals and free market ideals of America which have created the circumstances where those fantasies even seem like a remote possibility in the minds of academics and social engineers. 

Labeling that latter ambition “progressive populism” will do as much to change the course of current political “populism” as sticking an oar into the water will stop a riverboat from moving downstream in a fast-moving current.

But still, it’s fun to watch them try.

William Sullivan blogs at Political Palaver and can be followed on Twitter.