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Don't 'Occupy the Democratic Party' -- Four Lessons From the Populist Movement

History suggests that it will take significant hard-core organizing lasting years if not decades to create the infrastructure for a new movement.

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There were four essential movement building components of populism that perhaps provide a way for us to measure where we are today and where we need to go:

1. Shared Movement Experiences: The populist cooperatives provided the day-to-day shared experiences that bound the movement together on a local, state, and national level. People worked together and struggled together against powerful opponents, often having to suffer vigilante violence to protect their budding cooperatives that stored produce and livestock, and that sold food, supplies, and farm implements. These shared experiences built up the courage and self-respect of millions of participants. They felt part of something big and important. They shared the common identity of populism.

And today? While there are thousands of cooperatives and progressive nonprofit organizations in the country today, they are not linked in substantial ways. It’s also not clear if they are creating the common experiences necessary for movement building.

The Occupy Wall Street encampments certainly are (or were) creating such communities, but as currently conceived and constructed, they just aren’t suitable for those who don’t want to encamp. Also it’s not clear if the encampments will survive the current round of evictions.

Some unions also have developed powerful internal collective cultures. But unfortunately, union density continues to decline. As it does, the focus often narrows to internal collective bargaining issues. The Wisconsin campaign in defense of public sector workers’ rights was a new moment that certainly created a shared sense of movement. Yet, it seems destined to flow into the Democratic Party.

The environmental campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline also has the potential to build a common collective experience among its participants. But it may have difficulty as it collides with unions and politicians who claim the pipeline will create badly needed jobs.

The obvious point is that at the moment these efforts, and many others that could be listed, are fragmented and unconnected. We have a long way to go to build a common collective experience that matches the power of the populist cooperative movement.

2. Systematic Education:The populist lecturing system also was key to movement building as it developed a dialogue with everyday farmers about how the economic system really worked and what the movement should stand for. The base of the movement, not just the leadership, became financially literate as it debated and understood the need for a radical restructuring of the financial system based on the “sub-treasury plan.”

And today?  We don’t as yet have anything like a “lecturer” system to engage the American public in an educational discussion. But one could be built in a hurry. There are plenty of us who could link together to build a “Economics for the 99 Percent” program. But it may need something larger to get it going and give it purpose.

3. Independent Media: The populist movement was well-supported with a rag-tag collection of small, but vital newspapers and journals — about 100 of them — throughout the country. These media outlets provided continual news about the key economic and political issues of the day. Its editors ran their journals on a shoestring in order to maintain their independence and the clarity of their message.

And today? We do indeed have our rag-tag newsletters, journals, and thousands of websites, with Alternet.org being one of the best. Running on a shoestring is nothing new to them. But at the moment, there is little coordination or shared identity. But that could come as a movement grows.

4. The Peoples’ Government: And finally the populist movement’s base and its leadership truly believed that the American government belonged to them — they should be able to run political institutions just like the founding fathers had promised. As true democrats, they were not intimidated by money or power. They were decidedly not anti-government.

 
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