Symposium | Populism: How Much, and What Kind?

Make Sure It Includes Everyone

By Lester Spence

Tagged African AmericansDemocratsPopulism

To what extent does or should populism exclude certain types of issues and political commitments/alliances, and should the Democratic Party respond to the electoral debacle by embracing populism more fully?

Over the past eight years the Democrats have lost more than 1,000 seats at the national and state level. Some of this is a function of GOP-led gerrymandering and vote suppression. But some of this is a reflection of the party itself. Over the past three decades, the party’s embrace of neoliberal policies and programs has made it an unlikely home for the type of populism we need.

As a result, I’m far more interested in thinking through these questions from outside of the party. Instead of asking whether a political party partially responsible for the neoliberal turn should “go populist,” I ask, “What would it take for a given constituency within the Democratic Party to create a populist insurgency?”

I’m going to answer that question, and focus on African Americans. I focus on African Americans in part because I study and write about black politics. I also do so because, concentrated as they are in the Democratic Party’s urban archipelago, they represent a particularly important constituency. Further, I do so because while a number of my colleagues have emphasized the need to reach out to the white working class (so much so that “wwc” has become a kind of key acronym) I don’t tend to have a great deal of short-term trust in that project. The institutions required to generate a persistent cross-racial progressive coalition that spans cities, suburbs, and rural areas, are on life support if not dead already. Even the bowling alleys that used to bring together working class whites and non-whites socially have been transformed into Home Depots and personal storage facilities. In their place are right-leaning (and frankly racist) institutions, that consistently paint a variety of progressive government policies as harmful, as well as sending a message that fuses residents’ racial, national, and religious identity into one.  Building and rebuilding institutions that can fundamentally change their ideas and their political interests is a worthwhile endeavor, but it seems to me that it makes more sense to start with groups that already lean left politically and move outward. (Besides, one could argue that the Democratic Leadership Council tried the opposite already . . . and we see how that worked out.)

I’m more interested in “black populism,” which I would define as support for the proposition that regular black people have the right to and should have their interests expressed in government. Readers would be right to see here the mark of sixties-era black power thinkers such as Kwame Toure and Charles Hamilton. Like them I believe black working-class populations have the right to control the reins of government. Blacks constitute absolute majorities in places like Baltimore and Detroit, and significant pluralities elsewhere. Further, blacks tend to express more support (and have more need) for liberal and progressive government, which means that a black populism has a greater likelihood of generating policies that will benefit a broad swath of Americans. We already have more black elected officials than we’ve ever had before, many of them concentrated in places with black majorities. However, with this said, these officials haven’t consistently fought for the types of progressive policies that would benefit black working-class constituencies.

As a result, any black populist insurgency will likely have to contest internal forces at the outset.
Which brings me to the question of what a black populism should exclude. Black populism, like its broader cousin, should refrain from nativist claims, because they tend to reproduce the type of racism blacks have fought since the nation’s inception. And more concretely such claims would preclude the possibility of cross-racial coalitions. However, I’d also suggest that in order to be internally robust and inclusive, black populism should reject respectability politics, which I define as a politics that emphasizes changing personal behavior to fit middle class norms over systemic structural change; anything that smacks of the market (including black capitalist claims) in place of public goods; and prophetic and charismatic claims to authority. What should a black populism double down on? Most emphatically, a politics that asserts rights regardless of behavior. Nothing in the Constitution suggests that people with sagging pants aren’t covered by the Bill of Rights. Also, a politics that doesn’t focus on black business development and charity as the solution to tragedies like Flint. A politics that emphasizes internal debate, transparency, and accountability. And finally, a politics that emphasizes class.

A number of discrete black populations find themselves disciplined and punished by various forms of state violence. Black women find themselves directly victimized by welfare bureaucracies designed to control their reproductive labor and by police departments unwilling and unable to prosecute sexual assault cases. Further, they find themselves indirectly victimized by the criminal justice system. Black men find themselves directly victimized by the police and the criminal justice system in general, and indirectly victimized by welfare bureaucracies. Transgender women and men are directly victimized by the police and the criminal justice system. Gay men are as well. We can stratify black populations by gender, gender self-identity, sexuality, and ethnicity. These black populations are all treated differently by the state and civil society. However, the class differences within these populations are arguably far greater than the differences between these distinct populations. I can’t emphasize this enough. Black populism should be a class project. Every single identifiable community that believes itself to be connected to a black populist project should place class at the center of its activity.

Asking whether there are conservative ideas that black populism can embrace is an odd question on the surface, given the enduring racism/conservatism connection. However, the idea of a black community itself is profoundly conservative and is often used to promote a top-down elite agenda at the expense of working class and poor black folk (not to mention queer ones). I am not suggesting that those promoting the common-sense idea that a singular black community exists are doing so as part of a nefarious scheme. I am, though, suggesting that even within marginalized communities, people with more resources often have a greater ability to set the agenda. And there is a long history of well-resourced black individuals and organizations doing so in ways that tend to benefit themselves first and foremost over the group at large.
With this written, it is also possible that accepting and promoting the idea in the name of black populism can re-center “the black agenda.” A black populist agenda for example would focus more on providing the resources for K-12 education across the board than on affirmative action in elite college admissions as the vast majority of poor and working class African Americans often find themselves stuck in schools so poor that even their valedictorians can’t get accepted into elite colleges. There are similarly a range of conservative ideas and symbols that can be repurposed. The conservative right has not only never had a monopoly on what it means to be an American, to be in community, to be responsible, to value family—it has always promoted policies that violate these ideas. A left black populism can take and repurpose all of these values in ways that not only support its broader political project but in ways that if translated into policy can actually make the nation live up to these values.

I began by acknowledging that my definition of black populism owes a great deal to black power-era thinkers. I end by stating that my concept of what black populism should do owes a great deal to Black Lives Matter activists. Just as Occupy Wall Street brought public attention to inequality, Black Lives Matter brought public attention to state violence. It remains to be seen though whether this activism can congeal into the type of broad-based organized movement that has the potential to significantly transform municipalities and, through that, transform entities like the Democratic Party. I’d write something pithy like “time will tell.”But we don’t have a lot of time.

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Lester Spence is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University where he specializes in the study of black, racial, and urban politics. His most recent book Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics was recently named one of The Atlantic’s "Best Books That We Missed in 2016."

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