Panel discusses past, present of populism

By: Teagan Todd,  Cornell Chronicle
December 9, 2016

Populism emerged as a result of disillusionment with the United States Constitution, said Cornell law professor Aziz Rana in a Dec. 2 discussion titled “Populists, Progressives and the Present” at Cornell Law School.

Rana said populists began to interpret the Constitution as obstructing popular sovereignty and maintaining control of the United States by an elite upper class, and drew parallels between that feeling and today.

“This growing disillusionment … for many of us in the room might be striking and surprising because … since the 1970s up until very recently, we’ve been living through a sustained period of what you could refer to as constitutional consensus, or agreement – the basic sense that the Constitution produces just outcomes, that it’s worthy of veneration,” Rana said.

Elizabeth Sanders, Cornell professor of government, discussed populism and progressivism with regard to college campuses and in response to the recent election. Sanders said she believes the presence of “identity politics” do not contribute meaningfully to current discussions about how to restructure the American political system. Sanders also said she has been disappointed with the tendency of universities to focus too much on identity politics.

Cornell Law School professor Robert Hockett said the United States was initially founded on an economic system in which the livelihood of no person was entirely dependent upon being employed by someone else. However, as the nation industrialized and the laborer class grew, questions arose about how to protect the rights of people whose ability to work rested on a single entity.

Bill Novak, a professor at University of Michigan Law School, discussed the history of public utility law and its relationship to populism.

“The economics of natural monopoly were secondary to the public, ethical and legal obligation to serve every single member of the community equally in terms of necessities that underwrote basic public health safety and well-being,” Novak said. He noted that public utility law was used on a large scale to justify the progressive reforms of the populist era.

Brooklyn Law School professor Sabeel Rahman talked about the intersection of progressivism and minority groups, particularly in communities of color. While many key progressive movements excluded minorities, Rahman said that historically more inclusive versions of populism have existed, and some modern movements that include traditional progressive points include Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter.

Rana said that to ignore aspects such as race in favor of focusing solely on class in progressive movements would be to repeat history’s mistakes, and Sanders reiterated her idea that identity politics do not contribute to a productive political argument.

The discussion, moderated by Jed Stiglitz, assistant professor at the Cornell Law School, was presented by the Berger Current Events Colloquium.

Teagan Todd ’20 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

This article originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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