Where are the populist Democrats? Not in office.
The above sentences used to end "except for Dennis Kucinich." But no. I do know some of you out there: hello.
Political parties put people in office. They change ideologies when that helps them. Republican and Democratic parties have swapped ideas before. To say that they are doing so again does not mean that the "new Dems" will be Republicans or vice versa. It does mean that a people like myself who became Democrats for the New Deal or against the blacklisting or because the Kennedies or Johnson were less racist than some people or because a few Democrats were against the Vietnam War have assumptions to reconsider.
I'd say Jim Hightower qualifies here--with bells and whistles, as the saying went.
Once upon a time, the party was distinctly more egalitarian than the Republicans. That was a high jump over a low hurdle, then as now. But that was a change at the time. It was not particularly true of the party under Woodrow Wilson, that supposed "idealist" who persecuted leftists, journalists, and war-resisters and began the government explorations of modern propaganda, partly with apparent false fire events to bring the US into the imperial European in-fighting of WWI.
The Party had backed into a more egalitarian perspective as FDR campaigned against Huey Long and distanced itself from Herbert Hoover. The New Deal was a real boon that stopped the economic tailspin cold and might have done more had pressure from business magnates, including an attempted coup in 1934, not pulled Roosevelt back from the track. Likewise, the civil rights and social gains in the 60s and the 70s were real gains associated with compromise with the Democratic leadership, very much despite Vietnam and the draft and JFK's warlike handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the old Democratic Party that went into the 1960s was also the party of George Wallace and the KKK, and perceived worker affiliation for Americans was even less associated with racial and social egalitarianism then than it is now. We used to speak of "the solid Democratic South" that would never vote Republican because Abe Lincoln had obstructed their slave-holding.
At the time, the US stood chronologically in relation to the Civil War in almost the same relationship that it now does to the New Deal.
After JFK and RFK and LBJ all upheld Warren Court civil rights rulings and sent Federal troops into places like Alabama to enforce them, the states of the old Confederacy went "states' rights" Republican over the course of a few short years. The Democratic Party had effectively swapped its white union and KKK heritage for a northern corporate core fringed by what became known as the "Rainbow Coalition."
May we remember that as evidence that some good things can happen.
For a while, at least outwardly and until Bill Clinton too office, it maintained some trace of its union and worker's-rights roots that had come not only from sentiments against capitalists by egalitarian workers, but also from sentiments against capitalist carpetbaggers by racist workers in the South. Southern whites in the Civil War had fought not just for slavery, but also against wage slavery and domination by Northern business.
Still, it was great that the party transcended some of its more openly racist constituency at that time. It still does better than the Republicans for gays and women with respect to some issues, and that's a good thing. Some will also claim that the party is better with respect to healthcare; sadly, that is false: single-payer healthcare was coming, with enormous popular majorities; the Democratic elect inoculated the system against that by promoting a deal to make the IRS a collection arm of insurance and drug sellers with an industry-written bill.
Since at least 2006, the central elect of the party have also hunted down progressive officials within the party and driven them out. In 2008, Obama and HClinton stood on a platform with many other candidates, and he turned to her and said that such things would not work. In 2016, Hillary Clinton will run unopposed at the primary, or against someone without the support of the party.
During this period, the party elect have supported drilling, fracking, destructive coal mining, nuclear plants, and foreign wars to commandeer resources; racist and fascist corporatist regimes; increases in military and decreases in social spending; increases in ephemeral financial manipulation of supposedly "free" markets, including government collection for pharmaceutical and insurance industries along with more-or-less secret trade agreements; erosion of 1st and 4th Amendment rights, including extended surveillance of citizens by secret government, record-setting persecution of journalists and whistleblowers, open execution-assassination-murder of foreigners and US citizens on and off US soil without trial, cruel and unusual punishment, open torture, and medical experiments on detainees. On the other side of the ledger, some Democrats are in favor of gay marriage, which is nice. But the party has also led the movement to centralize, standardize, corporatize, and neuter the academic system that did the hard early work to explore gender and identity differences, and continues to do so today.
During this, the prominent politician who has stood up against drone strikes and surveillance and extended war and the loss of civil liberties is the dinosaurian Rand Paul. So where are the populist Democrats?
They are not in office. They will not be at the polls in large numbers. They are little prominent in writing and media.
They have been chased away, and the Party is doing as much as it can to not replace them.