Democrats need a Fred Harris

The 2020 Democratic primary began with 29 candidates, winnowed down to a still-high 12 just a week from the Iowa caucus. The last time Democrats contended with such an abnormally large field was in 1976 when outsider Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter finished first out of 17 candidates, who ranged in ideology from pro-life activist Ellen McCormack and former segregationist George Wallace on one end to environmentalist Congressman Mo Udall on the other. The temptation to compare 1976 and today is powerful, although prognostication of Beto O’Rourke or Cory Booker being the next Jimmy Carter fell short with both dropping out before primary action. Pete Buttigieg has also been hailed as a potential “next Jimmy Carter”, still a possibility with the polling volatility in Iowa and his strong ground game.

2020 as 1976 All Over Again

Beyond these sometimes stylistic comparisons, America today confronts many of the same dilemmas it did in 1976. After all, the conservative 1970s followed the 1960s’ immense social upheaval-following hippies and Woodstock, “acid, amnesty, and abortion” was deployed as a potent political smear against 1972 Democratic nominee George McGovern. Following desegregation efforts, anti-busing violence raged in large cities, calling attention to continued racial tension (ironically, this issue arose in 2020 as well, during the first Democratic debate). On gender, the Equal Rights Amendment encountered conservative opposition from figures like Phyllis Schlafly, falling short of ratification.

Some suggest that today’s political climate mirrors the progress-backlash cycle. From the election of the first Black President to the legalization of gay marriage to the lasting effects of the Great Recession, the last decade and a half ushered in major social change. Subsequently, racial, gendered, and class tensions bubbling beneath the surface have been laid bare, as they were in the backlash of the 1970s. Our generation observed this backlash it in the racially-motivated Tea Party, and less than a decade later, in the election of Donald J. Trump. We saw it in the eyes of racists and neo-nazis marching in Charlottesville. We see it today in the battle over gun rights between rural sheriffs and mostly Democratic Virginia legislators.

The political scene also displays striking similarities. In both 1974 and 2018, Democrats made incredible gains in the midterm elections while also facing external and internal challenges. Externally, both cohorts served an American public disillusioned with government and a corrupt Republican administration. Internally, within the party, generational and ideological shifts became apparent, pointing then and today to the differences between traditional blue-collar Democrats and younger liberals. In both times, boisterous right-wing populists, George Wallace and Donald Trump, appealed to disaffected rural and working-class Democrats and independents.

In light of these resemblances, Democrats today could use a candidate/strategy analogous to… Fred Harris. That’s right, the former Oklahoma Senator, son of a sharecropper, Senator from 1964 to 1972, and DNC chair from 1969–1970. While not a well-known name, Harris ran for President in 1972 but dropped out in 1971, but ran again in 1976. While he dropped out in April 1976, the issues and experience he ran on provide today’s Democrats with a useful blueprint.

Fred Harris and the Fight against Concentrated Power

Central to Fred Harris’ 1972 and 1976 campaigns was his unflinching commitment to economic and political democracy. While anti-monopoly issues have received recent attention, Harris embodied a different approach from people like Bernie Sanders, waging a crusade against the excessive consolidation of both corporate and government power. In his1976 campaign announcement, Harris wrote,

“I call for the unity of America, unity around principle and national purpose. We must lower taxes for most Americans and raise them for the Nelson Rockefellers and the J. Paul Gettys. We must stop the EXXONs and the Safeways from using their monopoly power to squeeze out competitors and then overcharge consumers. The government must stop emptying the pockets of those who have to work for a living in order to subsidize the Lockheeds and the Penn-Centrals.”

Distinct from big-government liberalism, this approach was rooted in a deeper populist tradition skeptical of largesse. In fact, a 1975 Rolling Stone article aptly described it as “an attitude of antigovernment, anti-richness and anti-big corporations”. In this, Harris “captured the flavor of late-nineteenth-century populism in substance and style” ( Lowitt 183).

Fred Harris’ orientation translated into a policy passion for aggressive antitrust enforcement (Lowitt 232). As a Senator, in 1971, he introduced an ambitious (perhaps excessively so) bill to cap corporate consolidation at a percentage of market share (184). He simultaneously decried the rise of conglomerates large enough to raise prices on consumers and resist market demands, pointing out that ostensibly, household goods could be 20% cheaper with the assurance of properly competitive markets.

The more things changed, the more they remained the same. As biographer Lowitt notes, “The issues Harris raised are still endemic in American life today” (270). Maybe, just maybe, it’s time for a renewed new populism. Then, as today, we face an environment of consolidation. In Harris’ time, courts began to adopt the “Chicago School” approach, guided by generalized notions of economic welfare. This permissive approach led to an increase in the power of large businesses at the expense of smaller firms and entrepreneurs. While consumers today are less concerned with inflation than in the 1970s, the problem continues to worsen spurred by weak government enforcement, technological behemoths gobbling up the competition, and a Democratic Party that that forgets its decentralist Jacksonian/ Patman-ian history. Consolidation’s impacts are possibly even worse today than in the 1970s. Monopolization drives a surprisingly diverse set of deleterious impacts: Death-trap 737 Max aircraft, attacks on workplace democracy, rising pollution, and even censorship of conservative voices. Discussions led by people like Matt Stoller are promising, but beg for a coincident political approach adapted to a divided country. The modern left must, however, recognize that Americans are still averse in some ways to big government, with 67% calling it the greatest threat. Harris’ vision of economic democracy proves most attractive paired with concurrent respect for subsidiarity as well as racial justice.

Fred Harris: Transcending the Economy/Identity Dichotomy

Too often, today’s Democrats seem trapped in a dichotomous debate between economics OR identity issues. Heck, we still argue over whether economics or racism elevated Donald Trump to the White House (as Tim Carney notes, social capital best explains it, but that’s for another article). Instructively for today’s leaders, Fred Harris’ emphasis on economic populism co-existed with and was bolstered by his antiracism. Despite representing a southern state, Harris advanced racial progress and harmony throughout his career. As a Senator, he co-chaired the Kerner Commission, called to investigate the social causes of urban riots in the late 1960s. Harris concluded that urban race riots were driven not by leftist agitators, as some conservatives suggested, but by a reaction to lacking economic opportunity and institutional racism (Lowitt 63). The final report incorporated a gut-punch of a line, “White institutions created it [‘the ghetto’], white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” Harris followed research with action, stumping for African American candidates like Ron Dellums in California (Lowitt 143) and refusing to oppose busing; his voting record included support for bills that banned housing discrimination and discrimination in voting practices. By challenging anti-Black racism, Harris welcomed African Americans into a populist big tent centered on class issues.

However, one would be remiss in not discussing Harris’ advocacy for indigenous communities. From Alaska to New Mexico, he fought constantly for indigenous self-determination (Lowitt 200). To boot, he worked hard alongside his wife, Native American advocate LaDonna Harris, to expand opportunities for struggling indigenous communities. Fred Harris recognized the unique challenges faced by ethnic minorities while tying their precarious position to a lack of economic and political democracy. For Harris, it was possible to focus on class without omitting identity.

Consequently, in representing Oklahoma, Harris united this concern with outreach to poorer, often rural, White communities. Harris’ cultural appeal certainly helped this effort. Indeed, in studying urban areas and coming from the country, Harris had a “foot in two camps” (Lowitt 63). The candidate once described his own politics as “based on southern culture and moral values”. On the campaign trail, he frequented backyard barbecues and hosted fried chicken fundraisers as he and LaDonna toured the country in a Winnebago ( Koplinski 274). Additionally, despite his broad left-wing orientation, Harris knew when to break with the left. He voted to support gun rights, support local oil producers, and challenge the UN’s anti-Israel bias, reflecting a nuanced sensitivity to Oklahoma’s conservatism. Elected twice with a large majority of votes in conservative-yet-Democratic rural Oklahoma Harris led various initiatives (including a bipartisan bill with Kansas Senator James Pearson) to combat rural poverty and invest in small towns (Lowitt 48). His undying concern for rural communities stemmed from personal background, a legacy that lives in few Congressional Democrats outside of Minnesota Representative Collin Peterson.

Therefore, guided by a populist platform and small-town sensibilities, Harris’ 1976 campaign sought to win back Democrats who supported Wallace and/or Nixon (Lowitt 243), not unlike Democrats today attempting to reach Obama-Trump voters. Successful Democrats like Conor Lamb, Sherrod Brown, and Amy Klobuchar recognize that as Harris put it, “you can’t get a majority without a lot of those people who in the past might have supported Wallace or have been drawn to him”- just replace Wallace with Trump.

New Populism as a Path to Working Class Unity

The obstacle of unifying such a diverse coalition proved insurmountable for Harris’ presidential ambitions and today’s intractable polarization renders it an increasingly daunting goal. Then again, Harris’ losses also stemmed from media ignorance, a large field, and strategic decisions. His “New Populism” didn’t fail everywhere. In Mississippi, the Harris campaign brought together African Americans and former George Wallace backers (Lowitt 246). Additionally, despite being seen as too left-wing, he won over many rural voters in Iowa, finishing in 3rd place behind “Uncommitted” and Jimmy Carter (Koplinski 275).

Similarly today, the unifying message of “New Populism” could marshal new coalitions for Democratic victory. “New Populism” was always about bringing together groups that sometimes engaged in internecine Democratic power struggles (Lowitt 142). One of Harris’ books, Now Is the Time, called for unity between students, POC, and the White working class, only a year after antiwar students and unionized construction workers clashed in the streets of Manhattan. This unifying message abutted demands within the Democratic Party from people like McGovern 1972 advisor Fred Dutton, who called for a “social change coalition” of college-educated suburbanites, POC, and feminists to lead the party ( Stricherz 140). Indeed, this movement came at the expense of blue-collar workers and Catholics (Stricherz 125). Harris himself, who endorsed McGovern in 1972 after exiting the primary, admitted in 1975 that the McGovern campaign lacked sincerity on class issues. He recognized, like Robert Kennedy a few years earlier, that Democrats could not abandon their working-class roots and knew that a populism going beyond Kennedy’s could enlarge the tent.

Today, a battle rages over whether Democrats should adopt the social change purity tests advanced by young radicals Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or turn towards the folksy heartland moderation exemplified by DCCC Chair Cheri Bustos. In the 1970s, Harris faced pushback in part for being ostensibly too leftist, although he simultaneously rejected the labels “liberal”, “progressive”, and “socialist” (Lowitt 165, 241, 252). With more Democrats today embracing socialism, it’s not hard to see anti-monopoly populism, less threatening than the tarnished socialist label, forge unity.

Instead of bickering over the party’s direction, why not take a page from Fred Harris and spread a message of economic democracy to Americans in every community? Why not, like Harris, challenge right-wing populism (Wallace then, Trump today) with cultural understanding for city and country alike paired with a focus on bread-and-butter issues (Lowitt 223)?

Modern Analogues?

Sadly, no 2020 candidate perfectly advances Fred Harris’ decentralist populism. Some come closer than others-Senator Bernie Sanders comes close at times. After all, he’s a rural class-centric left-winger with a historic sensitivity for both gun ownership and civil rights. However, as noted, Harris explicitly rejected the centralized government all too common in socialism. His magnum opus, The New Populism, reveals a commitment to truly free markets, which monopolies directly undermine.

Maybe Senator Elizabeth Warren on the other hand, who wants to save markets from their own excesses, reflects the Harris tradition. She’s also Oklahoman, rails against economic concentration, and was mentioned as a potential ally by Harris himself in a 2016 Politico interview. However, the Warren campaign’s recent trend towards emphasizing identity over class and particularly her Native American DNA blunder seem discordant with Harris’ more unifying economic message. Maybe that’s why she’s fallen short of a unifying populism, appealing more to those with postgraduate degrees.

Then there’s Senator Amy Klobuchar, who combines Harris’ concern for rural areas with a strong anti-monopoly platform and record. But, stylistically her campaign is more technocratic than populist, lending her a different lane than Harris occupied.

The best vehicle for Harris’ message was likely Montana Governor Steve Bullock, whose customized cowboy boots, gun ownership, and penchant for country music (his walk-on song was “Caught up in the Country” by Rodney Atkins) stylistically recall Harris’ cowboy hat crusade across America in 1972 and 1976. Bullock had it all-the rural background, the ability to win a red state, the passion for organized labor, and the tough-on-monopoly stances. However, he faced the same weaknesses that doomed Harris’ 1976 campaign-a lack of fundraising prowess and the associated inability to break out of the pack. Nonetheless, the hope lives on that somebody, like Harris, will recognize that “there simply cannot be a mass movement without the masses” and embrace a populist platform based on economic democracy.

Originally published at on January 26, 2020.