Populism gets a bad rap. In recent years a consensus has emerged in both the academic and popular debate that populism is to be avoided, inherently beset as it is by an exclusionary anti-pluralism, an unstable anti-institutionalism, and a dictatorial style of political leadership. As many critics have pointed out, however, this characterization misses the ways that a political appeal to “the people” is not an aberration or deviation but rather a central element of democratic societies. “Every political force—left, right or centre,” the cultural historian Michael Denning recently reminds us, “has to address and constitute the people; and every electoral force has to win votes by appealing to specific people in specific voting districts. Every politician is a populist.” As a term of derision, “populism” has forgotten this democratic axiom and instead comes to name a politics that dangerously distorts the procedures of electoral competition and political representation.
What are the prospects for a revitalized populist politics today, one that eschews the flaws of populist history and envisions a multiracial, democratic future? That is the subject taken up by the essays in this forum, which emerged from a conference in October hosted by the University of Chicago’s Center for Contemporary Theory, the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, the Racial Capitalism National Network, and the Working Families Party (WFP). These interventions recast the dilemmas of populist politics by exploring specific episodes and reorienting our understanding of what and who counts as populist. This rethinking is tied to the WFP’s efforts to recapture the language of populism and build a “left-led, multiracial working class alignment.” Though broadly sympathetic with this aim, the authors think through the political challenges, including the persistence of white supremacy, a transformed political-economic field that has undermined oppositional institutions such as unions, and the urgent need to link a domestic political realignment with a new internationalism.
Given the developments of the last few months, it is an understatement to say that these reflections were born of a different time. The symposium met in the southside of Chicago as the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) and Service Employees International Union Local 73—which represents custodians, bus drivers and other school support staff—closed their first week on a joint strike that would last eleven days. The strike, which won pay raises and commitments to reduce class size, hire librarians, nurses and social workers, built on the historic 2012 CTU strike—the first that had taken place since 1987. Since then, the struggle over Chicago schools has become an important node in articulating a broader progressive agenda directed against austerity and the privatization of public goods like education. The CTU has joined with a variety of forces—including the United Working Families, the Illinois branch of WFP—to bring its vision of a more just and equitable city into the halls of power. In 2018, CTU member Brandon Johnson was elected to the Cook County Board of Commissioners. In 2019, five democratic socialists were elected to City Council, joining the reelected Carlos Ramirez-Rosa to form the Socialist Caucus. One of the new council members was Jeanette Taylor who in 2015 had led a successful 34-day hunger strike to prevent the city from closing a southside high school.
Similar experiments to combine movement politics and electoral politics were happening elsewhere, and the fall conference was animated by the prospect that such a model might be nationalized in Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The failure of this effort, and what it means for the project of building a progressive and multiracial majority, has already produced a flurry of commentary. None of the pieces included here litigate this question. But it is worth recalling that the collapse of Sanders’s campaign was preceded by the fall of two other left popular projects, both developments following our October discussion—the coup that ousted Evo Morales’s Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS) in Bolivia in November and the historic defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labor Party in the United Kingdom’s December general election. Neither of these foretold in any straightforward way the spring defeat in the United States, but they suggest that the failure here must be reconsidered in a global frame.
The urgency of thinking comparatively and internationally is only reinforced in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has generated unprecedented public health and economic crises. This moment has revealed and exacerbated existing domestic and structural inequalities. Prisons and jails, where a disproportionate majority of the caged are black and Latino, have seen high levels of infection. In cities like Chicago and Milwaukee, where African Americans make up less than a third of the population, 70–80 percent of those who have died from COVID-19 are black. While many of us are working from home, over 48 millions workers are out accomplishing essential and often invisible work without the most basic of protections. In health care and social work, more than 70 percent of these workers are women. Total unemployment claims reached 26 million in 5 weeks, and the real unemployment rate is expected to be 18 percent.
Meanwhile, in the global competition for scarce resources like ventilators, testing reagents, and protective gear, poor and even middle-income countries, like Brazil, are likely to be outbid and unable to provide a minimum of care. In this context, the Trump administration has doubled down on immigration restrictions and deportations while continuing to resist calls to lift economic sanctions that impede more than twenty-five countries from accessing needed medical supplies and international support. The presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, has offered no alternative to this global posture releasing a negative ad that only exacerbates already heightened anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism.
The long-term political implications of the crisis remain to be seen. Though the trillions already spent to dampen the crisis vitiate the conservative refrain “how will you pay for it,” and though universal health care now appears to many an obvious reply to an unprecedented public health crisis, the fallout of the pandemic is just as likely to deepen the rightward trend of domestic and global politics as it is to bolster progressive causes. Just as no side has a monopoly on constituting the people, capitalizing on this crisis will be no easy task for a left that remains weak. As Nikhil Singh puts it, “the COVID-19 pandemic will not create the social transformation we seek, but it will set the terms for it.” The following essays suggest paths forward by revisiting the directions populism has taken and reconsidering the contemporary challenges for building a progressive multiracial majority.