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Populism and Fred Harris

July 2, 2010

This is my first attempt to write a diary for this venue. While I have made a living writing on behalf of my clients or for publication, it is normal for one to be timid and uncertain when attempting to enter a new arena and so it has been for me. After drafting and discarding several attempts to write what would appear to me to be a fitting and informative discussion, I turned to divert myself from escalating frustration by straitening out the papers that had accumulated over the years in various boxes and drawers. While doing so I discovered, The Fred Harris Campaign Handbook. It is probably the only remaining copy in existence.

For those not as old as me and for those who may have forgotten or missed it completely, Fred Harris briefly ran for President of the United States during the primaries of 1972 and 1976. In 1976, Jim Hightower was his national campaign manager and I was a volunteer on the California campaign tasked with preparing a handbook for his efforts in the California primary. The handbook was a collection of selections from the writings and speeches of Fred Harris arranged by topic so that campaign workers could respond to inquires about the candidate in his own words.

After rereading the contents of that long ago document from a now forgotten campaign, I realized how much of what Fred had to say remained relevant now despite the subsequent destruction of the historical American political consensus by the Californian and Texan presidential administrations. So I thought I would begin my diaries by examining some of the issues we face today in the light of what Fred Harris had to say about them 34 years ago.

But first a little about Fred Harris. Fred had been a US Senator from Oklahoma when that state still had a strong progressive populist tradition. Although he started out as a classic liberal, he eventually classified himself, and was in turn identified by the media, as a populist.

Populism deserves a diary of its own. It is a word often used in political discourse, but lacking a clear referent, is more a space filler than informative. For the purpose of this diary I believe it is probably sufficient to view Populism as a response by the populace of that time to specific perceived threats to their liberty and economic well being.  Beyond dealing with those threats populism has little more to say.

What differentiates populism from the more ideological based political philosophies such as liberal, conservative, progressive, reactionary and libertarian is just that, ideology. Populism usually focuses on the current threats and has no ideology beyond dealing with them. It freely borrows responses to those threats from the proscriptions suggested by the more ideological political movements without acknowledgment of their philosophical underpinnings.

There are I believe at least two main types of Populist that I shall call Liberal/Progressive Populists and Conservative/ Libertarian Populists. Liberal/Progressive Populists tend to see the immediate threats to be from government as well as other large organizations, usually corporations or financial institutions. They often believe that government shorn of its threatening aspects can and should control the ravenous appetites of the other institutions.The Conservative/Libertarian Populist sees the current threat emanating primarily from government alone and may be relieved by the elimination of those specific governmental activities they object to. Fred clearly was the former and not the latter.

Let’s turn then to what Fred had to say in 1976 regarding an issue recently front and center of the political debate, health care.

“If you step north of the Canadian border, you have free medical care. No deductibles or co-insurance, no limits on hospital stays or how many times you see your doctor. When that system went into effect twelve years ago, there were those who said the hospitals would be hopelessly overcrowded. Not so, as people are getting preventive care, and as they’re entitled to care without having to be sick enough to go to the hospital.

If you step back across that boundary to the south, you find in this country-the richest country in the world- the best medical care in the world for rich people, and awfully sorry medical care for a lot of people. We rank seventeenth among nations in infant mortality, which is a euphemism that means ‘Your baby’s dead. We don’t have to put up with that.

We ought to have a universal health care system, paid for out of the federal treasury, rather than an insurance system that might be regressive. There should be much more emphasis on group medical practice and preventive care. And a great more emphasis on paramedical personnel.” (Fred Haris Campaign Handbook)

“It’s like déjà vu all over again.” (citation unnecessary). It has been 34 years since Fred’s proposal and although we have gotten a pretty good start on health insurance reform we are still awaiting health care reform.

Fred goes on, in the continuation of the above quote, to address the baleful influence of doctor dominated institutions on attempts to make fairer and more effective the delivery of health care in the United States. In 1976 health care, for good or ill, was controlled primarily by doctors or doctor dominated institutions. It was those institutions such as the AMA that successfully resisted health care reform at the time.

In 1976, the Reagan and Bush fire sale of American institutions to Wall Street, insurance companies, energy corporations and the defense industries had not yet begun but once started, it effectively wrested the United States health care system from the hands of doctors and other medical delivery personnel and placed it in the willing hands of accountants, investment advisors and bankers.

It is interesting to note that Obama’s strategy of allying with the doctor and medical community was probably a major factor in achieving the level of reform that was obtained with the passage of the recent health reform legislation.

My next post shall examine Fred’s positions on Wall Street, a subject that makes the blood of all true populists quicken.

(This article first appeared in Daily Kos April 24 2010)

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