Ben Chin: It’s time to redefine populism

Ben Chin: It’s time to redefine populism

In the early eighties, when the Maine People’s Alliance and other similar groups across the country were founded, community organizers talked about “stop sign organizing.” The strategy involved picking campaigns everyone could agree with, even if they were as small as advocating for a new stop sign. That mentality was in reaction to the movements of the 1960s and 70s that were highly ideological, divisive, and—while they accomplished a lot—ended with a lot of infighting, internal division, little public support, and few lasting institutions.

Thus, modern community organizing focused on a populism that deliberately avoiding race (issues like immigrant rights) and gender (issues like abortion) in order to publicly distinguish itself from movements for black freedom and second-wave feminism. Class issues, with a sprinkling of environmentalism, carried the day: consumer protections, universal health care, cleaning up toxic waste dumps, raising the minimum wage, clean elections, etc. These fights typically occurred in “issue siloes,” disconnected from each other.

While MPA remains deeply committed to all of those issues, our candidate endorsement questionnaire this year—and even the minimum wage referendum that we support at the ballot this November—contains major departures from the “stop sign organizing” philosophy.  We openly embrace issues that deal with racial and gender justice, deliberately breaking with a 1990s approach to politics that too many progressive organizations still embrace.

This shift is important because efforts in the past that were supposed to benefit “everyone” actually left out all sorts of people.

Take the minimum wage, for example. We can’t wait to pass a referendum that gives almost one in three Maine workers a raise, gradually moving to a $12 an hour minimum by 2020. Tipped workers, however, have been left out of most past minimum wage increases across the country because of loopholes in our labor laws. It’s no coincidence they are mostly women.

That’s why our referendum phases out the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. The gender wage gap matters and failure to deal with the tipped wage loophole makes it worse. While this provision of the referendum may bring greater opposition from certain corporate lobbies, moving towards one fair wage is both a moral imperative, and strategically essential to ensure all women see their interests represented in the fight for economic justice.

Furthermore, we know that even with an inclusive minimum wage policy, gender and race can make even getting a job in the first place difficult or impossible. Unplanned pregnancies, minor criminal convictions, work permit wait periods and legal status requirements can all prevent people from securing employment at all, let alone a job that pays a decent wage. That’s why our questionnaire includes MaineCare abortion coverage, “ban the box,” General Assistance for asylum seekers, and driver’s licenses for the undocumented. Pregnancy, one of the most economically significant decisions a woman will make, must be a real choice.  Employers should examine job applicants by their qualifications first, ensuring people with minor criminal convictions aren’t automatically destined for a life of unemployment, even after serving their time. Asylum seekers, fleeing for their lives, should not be homeless simply because the federal government bars them from working during their first months in America. Undocumented immigrants—upon whose labor Maine’s agriculture depends—must be able to drive to work legally, both to earn decent wages for their families and to keep our economy moving.

Many candidates running for office (and many voters) might not have considered how all of these issues and policies relate to each other. It’s easier to run for office thinking that you will only talk, for example, about economic issues, or some other set of issues that appeal to a narrow identity, but people’s lives cannot be fragmented the way we fragment our politics and organizations. It may be easier to raise money or find conservative allies by only working on “women’s issues,” or “worker’s issues,” or “environmental issues,” or “immigrant issues,” or stop signs. But in the end, women are workers and immigrants, and need clean air and water (and, for that matter, stop signs) just like everyone else. Our questionnaire is designed to push elected officials to see the full spectrum of human experiences in Maine, not just the parts that are easiest to talk about.

While we have space for only twenty questions, hardly enough to cover every issue, the message should be clear: no matter your immigration status, gender, class, or race, we have your back and we are looking for candidates that believe the same. We move forward together or not at all. If it makes winning a little more challenging, if it takes a little longer, if we have to work a little harder, so be it. Large parts of the past four decades have been wasted by pretending we can turn the tide on poverty, pollution, and violence with the same strategies used to win stop signs.

Ours must be the generation that reinvents populism, a politics that resonates with most people, by drawing strength from, and not avoiding, our differences.

Photo via Flickr/meg.

About author

Ben Chin
Ben Chin 8 posts

Ben Chin is the political engagement director for the Maine People's Alliance.

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