Mississippi Democrat leaders: We need to return to our populist roots

By Joe Atkins, Labor South

Talk to most Mississippians down at the local coffee shop, and the first thing they'll tell you is they're conservative, says Mississippi Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, and one of the last Democrats in the state still holding a regional or statewide office.

Talk to them 30 minutes, and they'll tell you, "Wall Street is running over Main Street," Presley says. "You’ll see a fire-breathing William Jennings Bryan populist."

In a recent panel discussion at the University of Mississippi's Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics, Presley and state Rep. Bobby Moak, a Bogue Chitto, Miss., Democrat and state House minority leader, talked about their party and its prospects in the new Republican-dominated Mississippi.

For Presley, the Democratic Party has to rediscover its populist roots.

"We've got to get Bubba back," Presley said. "We’ve lost rural white folks. We've not been talking to them."

The party has to look beyond the racial divide that has helped cripple it in the past, a division exploited by the surging Republican Party, and re-connect with hard-working, often-struggling Mississippians, both black and white, who share core Democratic values. "It's not right versus left. It's top versus bottom," Presley said. "Who is going to control the government? Those who can afford access?"

Democrats have to make sure "the lady wiping tables at the diner" has access, too.

Old-style populism created the position Presley holds. Despite the frequent racist rantings of many of them, progressive Southern politicians at the turn of the last century established commissions and agencies to protect the public by overseeing utilities, banks, railroads and insurance companies. They pumped needed money into public education, went after rogue companies taking advantage of consumers, championed small farmers and small businessmen.

In Washington, progressive Democrats like Franklin Delano Roosevelt pushed through legislation like the Glass-Steagall Act to rein in financial speculators and other greedy interests. Sixty years later, the party's leader, Bill Clinton, applauded the repeal of Glass-Steagall as a milestone in "modernizing the financial services industry, tearing down those antiquated laws and granting banks significant new authority."

Clinton and the economically conservative, Southern-dominated Democratic Leadership Council steered the modern Democratic Party away from populism to its own version of corporatism, a party liberal on social issues like abortion but one as committed to Wall Street interests as the Republicans.

Of course, Democrats have always fought with one another over the soul of their party. They're not like Republicans, who, as Moak says, "march in lockstep," or as Presley says, "get a fax everyday on here's what you should do."

In the late 1800s, it was the challenge of the progressive Populist Party, the largest third party in the history of the nation, that forced Democrats to become the progressive party. In the one-party South, populist Democrats were at constant odds with the so-called "Bourbon" Democrats, or Redeemers, who, like modern-day Republicans, were inextricably linked to corporate interests and used methods like the poll tax to limit or even eliminate the franchise of poor whites as well as blacks.

With Republicans controlling both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature as well as the governor's mansion today, the parade of bills coming up for debate is like one steady assault on people of limited access and limited means -- "personhood" proposals aimed at overriding the statewide vote against such a measure, the establishment of charter schools despite underfunded existing public schools, Alabama-style anti-immigrant proposals, bills aimed at gutting workers' compensation.

Tea-partyers and other right-wingers who mistakenly call themselves populists gain ground in places like rural Mississippi, ground ceded by Clintonites long ago, by talking religion and values. The gods they serve, however, have nothing to do with religion.

As writer Thomas Frank has observed, they "may talk Christ, but they walk corporate." Anti-immigrant bills rarely effectively target the business owners who do the hiring. Charter schools are a Trojan horse aimed at privatizing the public school system. "Personhood" is smoke and mirrors, doomed to defeat in the first court willing to take it up.

In such a climate as today, Democrats in Mississippi have to know who they are and be willing to take a stand on what's important, Presley said. "We get back the rural people by showing that we're not wimps. We've got to show we're not afraid to take on a fight."

(Photo of William Jennings Bryan delivering a campaign speech in 1908 via Library of Congress website.)