Symposium | Populism: How Much, and What Kind?

Valuing the Greater Good

By John Fetterman

Tagged DemocratsDonald TrumpequalitypoliticsPopulism

One of the most infuriating storylines to emerge on November 9, ad nauseam in the post-election coverage, was the notion that Donald Trump ran a populist campaign and triumphed over the elites and the establishment.

Pandering to our worst impulses and dog-whistling to the lowest common denominator doesn’t make you a populist; it makes you a demagogue. Scapegoating immigrants and stoking fear of Muslims isn’t populism; it’s xenophobia. Undermining the legitimacy of our elections, the free press, and even basic facts, isn’t populism; it’s anti-intellectualism taken to its logical and dangerous conclusion.

The idea of Trump as a populist is cartoon absurd. A billionaire with a solid-gold toilet as the champion of the common people? Please.

Of course, as he put together a government, we started to see just how much of a charade his campaign was, as he stocked his kleptocracy with CEOs, Goldman Sachs executives, and other assorted billionaires. It’s unfortunate, because our country is in dire need of authentic, genuine populism right now. The house always wins and the deck is stacked against working-class Americans. Just don’t expect Donald Trump to do anything about it.

To me, true populism is about basic fairness and equity. Mark Zuckerberg is always going to have a nicer home than the rest of us—and I’m 100 percent okay with that. But at the same time, people all deserve a living wage, food security, clean drinking water, health care, good schools, and affordable college. Populism is about valuing the greater good more than the ability of the individual to do and have whatever he wants while never being asked to give up anything. My political philosophy at its core is that everybody’s better off . . . when everybody’s better off.

I ran for the U.S. Senate last year as a populist. I wanted to represent the true heart of the Democratic Party–working-class towns like Braddock, Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh suburb where I currently serve as mayor; and the people that who have been forgotten, left behind, or written off.

I ran on ideas that I consider to be common sense: We should pay a living wage, because if there’s enough money for bloated CEO salaries, there’s enough to pay workers $15 an hour at McDonald’s; no one should be able to tell you who you can love; we shouldn’t be spending billions of dollars to lock people up for marijuana; and all of us should agree that criminals and terrorists shouldn’t be allowed to buy firearms. We must humanely confront an opioid crisis that is ravaging our communities and families. Climate change cannot be ignored.

I’ve certainly never considered these views extreme or even particularly progressive. I believe the Democratic Party would have prevailed in November if it had embraced this kind of authentic populism.

But I also believe that we’ll never elect genuine populists to office in this country as long as we have Citizens United giving a disproportionate voice to millionaires and billionaires. No candidate, no matter how well-intentioned, is going to pay as much attention to a $27 donor as a $2,700 donor.

A Senate seat could cost nearly $200 million, the overwhelming majority of it—ironically—pent on negative commercials designed to paint the other candidate as out of touch with populist “working families.” The fact that money has come to be viewed as a primary proxy for electoral viability is just as problematic. In my campaign, most everything worked extraordinarily well—our message resonated, we built a large and enthusiastic following online, drew strong crowds at events around the state, and even got received good media coverage.

The problem was that we couldn’t raise millions of dollars, and in this political landscape of outlandish spending by special interests and outside groups, that’s what really matters. (Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?) If you look at a political campaign as a test, it’s like 70 percent of your final grade is determined by just one question: How much money do you have?

American politics is like McDonald’s french fries: No one can logically explain why they have 19 ingredients, when there only need to be two or three. And the most artificial and toxic ingredient in American politics is money. It makes it nearly impossible to elect candidates who are truly on the side of basic societal fairness, to compete solely on the strength of ideas, and opens the door for a charlatan like Donald Trump to hijack the mantle of populism and carry it all the way to the Oval Office.

Indeed, I don’t think true populism exists anymore in American politics. It certainly doesn’t in the Republican Party. Yet, if you go out to 63 out of the 67 counties in my home state of Pennsylvania, the overwhelming majority of those voters believed a man like Donald Trump wais the candidate looking out for the average person. That must change.
Cynically, both parties unequivocally know how deeply flawed the process is.

Every candidate knows, because they will have to spend five days a week, four or five hours a day, cold-calling strangers begging for money. They will mail invitations to extraordinarily wealthy individuals to attend fundraisers that can cost as much a $5,000 (or more) to attend. They will have countless artificial conversations with people strictly to see how much cash they can work them for.

They will field frequent calls from political journalists whose first question is almost always, “So, how much money have you raised?” Campaigns will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to consultants who devise strategies to make the candidate seem more in touch with working families. Candidates will spend millions of dollars on TV commercials to paint their opponents as “out of touch” with working families.

They will use their current office to implicitly sell access—all 100 percent nice and legal—to raise campaign money for the next higher office. Or, if they occupy their terminal office, money just to scare off a potential challenger. (Hint: the power of incumbency.)

Long before anyone most people outside of Vermont ever heard of a Bernie Sanders, I’ve lived and worked in a truly forgotten community for the past 16 years. I chose to do so because I believed then, as I do now, that there is a staggering crisis of inequality in the country.

I ran a purely populist campaign that I hoped my children could be proud of one day. I raised most of our money from friends, family, and small-dollar online donations. We spent just $600,000 in the Democratic primary, yet managed to get 20 percent of the statewide primary vote and win my home county of Allegheny by a large margin. I believed now, as I did then, our campaign always had the correct message. (And if you want to see what I mean about money and corruption, consider that by November, this Senate race was the most expensive in U.S. history, at more than $170 million.)

Post-election, I am proud to return to the powerless, unglamorous work of being an advocate and champion for the left-behind communities of our Commonwealth. I refuse to deviate from remaining a true populist, and that’s why it’s unlikely that most of you will ever hear of me again.

I won’t ever go “office shopping.” I won’t use higher elected offices just to raise money to run again for the Senate or increase my odds of getting on MSNBC to impotently rail impotently on against Donald Trump to raise my national (donor) profile. (Jason Kander, I’m looking in your direction.)

I don’t expect that the issues we raised in our campaign are going to improve under Trump’s presidency. Therefore, if I am privileged enough to run for the Senate in the future, it will again be from a place of grass-roots populism, from and for a community and a region written off as dead. I’ve been advised that serving as mayor of a small, desperate steel town is not a platform that will likely succeed in elective federal politics.

To be sure, I know the people telling me this are probably right.  But I would rather recede into relative obscurity believing that true populism isn’t naïve and quixotic than be one more player who normalizes this badly broken architecture. Consequently, I aspire to the kind of true populism I believe my party needs to successfully confront the massive and systemic inequality we have in America today.

See you in 2022.


From the Symposium

Populism: How Much, and What Kind?


Make Sure It Includes Everyone


See All

Read more about DemocratsDonald TrumpequalitypoliticsPopulism

John Fetterman has been the mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania for 12 years. He holds an MPP from Harvard University and, most recently, was a Democratic primary candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania in 2016.

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus