Commentary | Economic Growth

Paul Wellstone—In Solidarity

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


Paul Wellstone — in solidarity

by Jeff Faux

Paul Wellstone was a good friend of the Economic Policy Institute. He cited our numbers, circulated our reports, and often generously praised our work. He made us feel good, pumping our energy to work even harder.

He connected EPI to the union halls, community centers, granges, and other places where he constantly met with people attempting to create an America in which everyone has work and that works for everyone. He had more than the “common touch.” He seemed absolutely without the sense of distance that even most populist politicians seem to have when they are elected to offices far less prestigious than the U.S. Senate. To hang around Paul Wellstone was to live for a while within the aura of a classless society.

In tributes and memorial speeches Paul has been eulogized by political friends and foes as honest, principled, and unpretentious. That he certainly was. But in his death, as in his life, his political ideals are treated with more than a trace of condescension.

His independence and open style are explained in large part because his politics were, well, irrelevant. Wellstone, we are told, was a “throwback” to a bygone era, a New Deal liberal who was out of step with his modernized centrist party, a man whose position on the short-end of 99-1 votes showed an absence of “leadership.”

But this image says more about the smug mindset of Washington’s chattering classes than it does about the meaning of Paul Wellstone’s political life.

A look beyond the Beltway shows that the issues Wellstone was passionately committed to — national health insurance, increased spending for education, human rights at home and abroad, workers health and safety, taking the treatment of mental health out of the shadows — are all majoritarian positions in the country. Paul Wellstone marched to a different drummer than the majority of the members of the U.S. Senate precisely because he had his political feet planted firmly in the soil of every day American life — families in debt, workers facing layoffs, elderly couples having to choose whose medicine they will buy this month, single mothers frantic with the stress of juggling work and raising children.

It is only in Washington that leadership is equated with the herd instinct, the passion to claim credit for a bill that passes no matter what its fraudulent content. Paul Wellstone’s leadership was of another quality. He was unique among Democrats because he knew the meaning of solidarity. He understood that the most potent weapon the establishment has is the power to isolate, to make its challengers feel that they are alone, to break their spirit with the fatal charge of being “not-a-player.” He saw how it worked among liberal activists themselves, who would compromise a proposal in order to get it introduced by a “centrist” rather than someone like Wellstone.

So he made it his mission to give heart and confidence to people battling for progressive causes all over America. Where other Democrats saved their political capital, Wellstone spent it. Where other Democrats agonized over being “predictable,” Wellstone took pride in being consistent. Where other Democrats cringed at being called a “liberal,” Wellstone reveled in it. He knew that only when Democrats who claim to fight for the ordinary American re-acquired the courage of their convictions could our two-party democracy function.

Speaking more clearly and more forcefully about those convictions will honor both his legacy and our nation’s democratic promise.


Jeff Faux is founding president and distinguished fellow of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

See related work on Economic Growth

See more work by Jeff Faux