Battle for Democracy: New Populism vs. Dark Money

My UMB Colleagues Tom Ferguson and Jie Chen with their collaborator Paul Jorgenson are just out in Salon with a dire caution: Big money is destroying American populism. They find some reason for optimism in the elections of Bill de Blasio in New York and Marty Walsh in Boston, driven forward by union money. Nonetheless, their research shows that our partisan politics is largely a contest of different factions of the one percent, more in the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. Still, populist Democrats have to confront the realities of their party’s funding sources.

Ferguson et. al regard union money as a healthy antidote to big money contributions by individuals and corporations, whether funded through candidate or congressional committees, 527 groups, PACS, SuperPACs, or other independent entities. (The money laundering fiasco engineered by the American Federation of Teachers in the Boston mayoral election leaves me less sanguine). They argue that even as attacks on Social Security and Medicare have somewhat ebbed within the pro-business so-called moderate wing of the Democratic Party, one-percenters are gearing up to attack:

State and municipal unions are now being hammered like industrial unions were some decades ago, with well-funded campaigns mounted to persuade voters that things like pensions are luxuries that, really, no rich person should ever have to pay taxes for. The relentless attacks launched by the political right at the state level, as well as the increasing nationalization of political finance even there, pose enormous threats to these unions. Doesn’t sound like populism, does it?

In areas where unions retain strength, it makes perfect sense for them to band together behind candidates they trust, pool resources to make sizeable political investments, and make a progressive case directly to the electorate. These open and unapologetic appeals, which mainstream, business-oriented Democrats have long recoiled from, clearly come as a tonic to many fed up voters who sense that they are being fleeced by banks, telecom providers, and the medical-industrial complex.

In both Boston and New York, there was some of this, and there will likely be more. But national Democratic elites, including the investor blocs that back them, are in a bind and they know it. They are cautiously experimenting to see if they can work out arrangements with the newly assertive state and municipal unions and work with and through them to better reach out to African Americans, women, Hispanics, and other groups that Republicans have thus far scorned.

Well, as I’ve argued “open and unapologetic appeals” isn’t an accurate description of the AFT’s conduct in Boston, or that of the Democrats for Education Reform dark money efforts either.

Basically, there is a now a contest in American politics between populism and money. But as the fictional Gordon Gekko knew, money never sleeps. Ferguson“Whether the old center or the new populists come out on top will be a critical issue going forward; the fate not only of the Democratic Party, but the whole political system may well hang in the balance.”

Just another day in our campaign finance farce-ocracy.





About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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