Populist Politics for Dummies

Another Thanksgiving, and the same problem, as always – if you’re of the liberal persuasion, even though you try to hide it with some hedging and saying that you’re really a progressive, but not really that, rather just curious about things and open-minded and willing to listen, you know you’ll get hammered all afternoon anyway. The rest of the family isn’t like that, and you’ll get the usual attempt at an intervention – you know, to rip you away from the clutches of that cult that captured your mind. It’s for your own good. They do want you to return to the family. They’re worried about you.

You know the drill. Obama is a devout Muslim who wants to convert us, and he was born in Africa, or Indonesia, or somewhere, so he isn’t really the president, and he’s a godless socialist, like the atheists Lenin and Stalin, out to give everything that is rightfully ours to the undeserving, which no Christian would do, and at the same time a fascist Nazi like Hitler, who was a Lutheran, rewarding his fat-cat corporate banking buddies with big bailouts while hoodwinking the masses. And what about those death panels and wanting to kill all the old people and kids who stutter? And anyway, he pals around with terrorists, who want to destroy our capitalist system and who hate the giant corporations that made our nation great. After all, he wants to destroy the insurance industry. And he wants to do something about global warming, which will destroy industry, and isn’t real anyway, as it’s cold at Thanksgiving. And then, really, he’s too well educated and knows too many things and thinks too much – he’s not like normal people, who are authentic, because they just know the right thing to do is and do it. No normal person reads all those fancy books by deep authors and agonizes over decisions. You know what’s right. You don’t have to think about it. You just do it. What’s so hard about that?

It’s that populist thing of course. Sure, you might mention that Obama can’t be fanatical Muslim terrorist and an atheist out to strip the world of religion at the same time, and a socialist out to take over the means of production and make everyone earn the exact same amount and share everything, while in bed with the big banks to make his Wall Street investment banking buddies rich. Which is it?

That will get you nowhere. Start that line of argument and you’ll get a blank look, and then get the questions you might think are off-topic. Why don’t you like Sarah Palin? What have you got against Glenn Beck? But those aren’t off-topic questions. It’s a test. You’re being challenged. Don’t you understand the groundswell of support for those two? Don’t you understand all of America rose up in those tea-bag parties, saying enough is enough?

Well, this Thanksgiving the Packers play the Lions, the Raiders have to deal with the Cowboys, and then the Giants play the Broncos. Suggest football. Agree to disagree on these other matters.

But something is up in America, and although trends in popular cultural all start in Hollywood for some reason, the place to look for political trends might be Texas, where there’s a Republican primary between the sitting governor, Rick Perry, and one of their two senators, Kay Bailey Hutchison. At solon.com Mike Madden suggests that this will test the Republican path for the future, but what’s happening may be a test for the nation. He asks the question. Is it tea party time in Texas?

Basically this is a discussion of whether the Republican Party wants to try to appeal to swing voters, or “double down on the tea party-loving, Glenn Beck-watching, Sarah Palin book-buying crowd that helped the GOP lose New York’s 23rd Congressional District for the first time in over a century earlier this month.”

It’s kind of interesting:

Facing a starkly conservative primary electorate, Perry has, well, gone rogue. Besides threatening to dissolve the United States over the Obama administration’s policies while addressing a roaring tea party crowd in April, Perry also refused to take $556 million in unemployment aid as part of the economic stimulus package. He talks about the 10th Amendment with the kind of fervor most Republicans reserve for the gun-toting Second; at the GOP governors’ conference, he urged his colleagues to “stand up and push back against Washington, D.C.”

Hutchison, meanwhile, hasn’t exactly racked up a liberal record in 16 years in the Senate. But she’s more of a country club Republican, firmly conservative on economic issues but not a full-on culture warrior. She voted for the first federal bank bailout last fall and has supported keeping abortion legal, though she also frequently votes to restrict access. If she can wrest the nomination from Perry that could be a sign the GOP will resist the urges of its conservative id. If she can’t, though, it could mean other Republicans will take Perry’s pandering to the tea party crowd to heart, and turn the party even harder to the right than it’s already heading.

But the calculation for Perry, and many Republicans, is that he’s riding a popular, or populist groundswell, and indeed, Hutchison’s poll numbers have dropped steadily. And Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, wants Hutchison to quit the race so Perry can win the nomination. And Madden notes that Perry’s first television ad shows the he plans “to run against Washington as much as against Hutchison. Madden says that could be the right strategy in Texas. Everyone hates Washington, or that’s the bet. No one wanted that half a billion in unemployment aid anyway. An all Hutchison is say she going to do everything she can to stop the government takeover of healthcare, and after all, as her campaign manager says – “Perry is all talk, that’s all he’s ever been. He says what he thinks folks want to hear at any time in his political career.”

But he seems to be saying the right things. Perry says everyone knows Texas may have to secede from the United States, ending that experiment – so why does Kay Bailey Hutchison hates Texas so much? Is she ashamed of it?

And it gets more complicated:

Meanwhile, the most hardcore conservatives may not support either Perry or Hutchison. The chairwoman of the Wharton County Republican Party, Debra Medina, is running a grass-roots campaign for the nomination well to the right of both of the major candidates. Her platform includes eliminating property taxes, nullifying federal laws that interfere with Texas sovereignty, banning all abortions and encouraging Texans to buy even more guns than they already have. (Except for the property tax bit, though, that’s not all that different from what Perry is running on.)

Madden calls this just more fallout from the last few years in politics, but a situation where one must make a choice:

When Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, some Republicans figured it was because the GOP had lost touch with voters; other Republicans, ideological kin to the ones who would wind up hurling tea bags at the White House last spring, figured it was because the GOP had lost touch with itself. The elections in Virginia and New Jersey this fall offered one way forward for the party – present candidates who stick to economic issues, keep whatever radical social agendas they might have in mind tucked firmly away, and don’t let Sarah Palin come to town and alienate the moderates. Between now and March, Texas may offer another path, the same one the party’s activists are increasingly insisting on following.

But Madden is being conventional here. Some are betting those moderates out there won’t be alienated by perfectly pure but not terribly well thought-out populism at all. They’ll eat it up. Look at Beck’s ratings. Look a Palin’s book sales.

And who needs to think things out? On Monday, November 23, Ross Douthat offered a column on that issue in the New York Times, primarily discussing Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. Douthat says the both made the same mistake about their political futures. You see, Palin and Huckabee “owed their appeal more to personality than to substance.” Douthat says that was dumb – it would have been better to “take their newfound eminence seriously” and start learning the details of the issues and making themselves experts. But no, they decided to “cash in on their celebrity” – and that’s just no way to gain credibility or position themselves for national office. What were they thinking?

Steve Benen comments:

There’s something to this. Both Huckabee, a two-term governor, and Palin, a half-term governor, both have presidential ambitions, but both are burdened with a weak understanding of public policy and a general indifference to serious work. With no day jobs, Palin and Huckabee could have begun learning things en route to building a national platform. Neither chose wisely.

But what Douthat neglects to mention is that this was probably an either/or situation for the former governors. The column notes, “It’s possible to be a celebrity and a serious politician at the same time: Barack Obama’s career proves as much.”

Yes, except Obama is dealing with an audience that seeks out and honors serious politicians.

And Benen cites Isaac Chotiner:

The first problem with this argument is that … Palin is unlikely to become a policy wonk because she is not very smart. What’s more, Douthat’s argument is tautological. Sure, it would be nice for the GOP if Palin and Huckabee were interested in policy. But if they were interested in policy, then they would not be so appealing to the GOP base.

In other words, the problem is that a large part of the right has no interest in a policy wonk, and sneers at intellectuals and elites and the types of people Douthat would like to see running the party. A candidate who was interested in learning the ins and outs of the welfare state and health care policy is unlikely to ever achieve Palin/Huckabee levels of popularity with the grassroots.

And such candidates wouldn’t come up in discussion at Thanksgiving dinner, either.

But the Republicans may have a problem here, or so Benen says:

The two competing bases find different qualities appealing. The GOP base is enthralled by “leaders” who boast about their apathy for intellectualism, elites, and book learnin’. The Democratic base tends to find this kind of dumbing down of politics insulting.

Palin and Huckabee see value in maintaining popularity in advance of likely national campaigns. No part of that scenario includes showing the slightest interest in public policy details.

The question whether either of the two is reading the national mood right. Yes, the Republican National Committee as a new plan called the Resolution on Reagan’s Unity Principle for Support of Candidates – a purity test which Benen examines in some detail – and he adds this:

The litmus test was reportedly written by attorney Jim Bopp, Jr., a prominent attorney opposed to abortion rights, perhaps best known for pushing an RNC resolution that would have relabeled the Democratic Party the “Democrat Socialist Party.” (The effort failed earlier this year.)

But is it mainstream thinking? Republicans are now famous for saying, in spite of all the polling, the nation agrees with us, really, on all the issues – you just know it, everyone knows it, and it’s just a fact. The press dutifully reports those statements, as they should, and that echoes around. The Republicans have the pulse of the people. They are the populists. Everyone else is the snooty elite, the over-educated policy wonks who drive Volvos or whatever.

But Michael Lind asks an interesting question – Can populism be liberal?

He argues that the Republicans have owned populism since Nixon and the Democrats would have to return to the New Deal to recapture it – sort of a King of The Hill, Capture the Flag thing. And it’s also an Andrew Jackson thing, what with Michael Barone saying that in the 2010 elections Republicans have a chance to knock Democrats out of as many as three dozen insecure congressional seats in “Jacksonian districts.”

Lind explains that:

By itself, this would merely reinforce the identification of the Party Formerly Known as Lincoln’s with the white South. But in a time of popular anger over banker bonuses and lobby-hobbled government, the themes of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian populism have appeal far beyond the Scots-Irish enclaves of the Appalachians and Ozarks. Witness the calls from Democrats as well as Republicans for President Obama to oust Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and pay more attention to Main Street than to Wall Street.

And he reminds us that American populism is neither left nor right:

Translated into economics, Jacksonian populism spells producerism. For generations, Jacksonian populists have believed that the hardworking majority of small producers is threatened from above and below by two classes of drones: unproductive capitalists and unproductive paupers. While government promotion of public goods like defense, infrastructure and utilities that benefit all citizens is acceptable, Jacksonomics is suspicious of crony capitalists who owe their fortunes to political connections (can you spell B-A-I-L-O-U-T?). And Jacksonian producerism naturally is haunted by the nightmare of a class of the idle poor, who are capable of working but instead live off the labors of others and lack an ownership stake in the community.

Gee, that sounds like the talk over Thanksgiving dinner, but Lind puts it in historical perspective:

Reform movements have succeeded in the United States only when their programs resonated with populist and producerist values. Lincoln’s antislavery Republicans succeeded where the earlier Whigs had failed because the Republicans persuaded Jacksonian farmers that snobbish, parasitic Southern Democratic slave owners were a greater threat to white farmers and white workers in the Midwest than rich Republican bankers and industrialists in the Northeast. Lincoln’s Hamiltonian program of aid to railroads and national banking had to be sweetened with the offer of Western homesteads for yeoman farmers before former Jacksonian Democrats would join his coalition.

In the 20th century, the most popular and enduring legacies of the New Deal have been the programs compatible with small-d Jacksonian democracy – public spending on infrastructure like dams and electric grids and highways, the promotion of single-family home ownership, federal aid to education and Social Security and Medicare, two entitlements tied to individual work by means of the payroll tax. In contrast, welfare for the nonworking poor was always unpopular with most New Deal Democratic voters, who preferred public works programs like the WPA, CCC and CETA to relief payments for the poor and unemployed. Although he broke with the New Deal tradition in other ways, President Bill Clinton was true to its spirit when he collaborated with the Republicans in converting “welfare” from an unpopular federal entitlement to state-based workfare programs.

Of course people often talk about this in terms of race, but Lind says that’s wrong:

All too often in American politics the populist distinction between producers and parasites has been mapped onto the racial division between whites and nonwhites. But the Jacksonian republican concern about freeloaders is not, in itself, racist. And it has frequently manifested itself in anger at the freeloading rich as well as the freeloading poor. At the moment, populist anxieties about the nonworking poor or illegal immigrants receiving medical coverage are eclipsed by populist anger at federal bailouts for well-connected Wall Street bankers who pay themselves titanic bonuses for unproductive gambling with other people’s money.

Lind is surprised that ‘the Obama Democrats, unlike the Roosevelt Democrats, cannot take advantage of the popular backlash against Wall Street.” But he thinks he knows why:

One reason is that the attempt of the “New Democrats” like Clinton, Al Gore and Obama to win Wall Street campaign donations has been all too successful. As Clinton’s Treasury secretary, Robert Rubin helped complete the conversion of the Democrats from a party of unions and populists into a party of financial elites and college-educated professionals. Subsequently Obama raised more money from Wall Street than his Democratic primary rivals and John McCain. On becoming president, he turned over economic policymaking to Rubin’s protégé Larry Summers and others like Timothy Geithner from the Wall Street Democratic network.

The financial industry is now to the Obama Democrats what the AFL-CIO was to the Roosevelt-to-Johnson Democrats. It is touching to watch progressives lament that “their” president has the wrong advisors. “We trust the czar, we simply dislike his ministers.” Obama owed his meteoric rise from obscurity to the presidency not to any bold progressive ideas — he didn’t have any — but rather to a combination of his appealing life story with the big money that allowed him to abandon campaign finance limits. According to one Obama supporter I know, the Obama campaign pressured its Wall Street donors to make their contributions in the form of many small checks, in order to create the illusion that the campaign was more dependent on small contributors than it was in fact. Even now President Obama continues to raise money on Wall Street, while his administration says no to every progressive proposal for significant structural reform of the financial industry.

That’s discouraging, as is those on the left choosing the wrong issues:

To begin with, most of the moral fervor of the contemporary center-left has been diverted from the issue of fair rewards for labor to the environmental movement. In theory, environmentalism ought to fit the populist narrative of defending shared goods against special interests. Indeed, clean air and water legislation and public parks and wilderness areas are broadly popular with working-class Americans, not least hunters and fishers. But many environmentalists insist that global warming must be combated not only by low-CO2 energy technology but also by radical lifestyle changes like switching from industrial farming to small-scale organic agriculture and moving from car-based suburbs and exurbs to deliberately “densified” cities with mass transit. Whether environmentalists propose to engineer this utopian social transformation by tax incentives or coercive laws, the campaign triggers the populist nightmare of arrogant social elites trying to dictate where and how ordinary people should live.

And then there are the wrong priorities:

New Deal liberalism was primarily about jobs and wages, with benefits as an afterthought. Post-New Deal progressivism is primarily about benefits, with jobs and wages as an afterthought. This inversion of priorities is underlined by the agenda of the Democrats since the last election – universal healthcare coverage first, jobs later.

It is only in the post-New Deal era that universal healthcare has become the Holy Grail of the American center-left, rather than, say, full employment or a living wage. Sure, Democrats from Truman to Johnson sought universal healthcare, and Medicare for the elderly was a down payment for that goal. But the main concern of the New Dealers was providing economic growth with full employment, on the theory that if the economy is growing and workers have the bargaining power to obtain their fair share of the new wealth in the form of wages, you don’t need a vastly bigger welfare state. Having forgotten the New Deal’s emphasis on high-wage work, all too many of today’s progressives seem to have internalized the right’s caricature of FDR-to-LBJ liberalism as being primarily about redistribution from the rich to the poor.

And then there is the optics, as big cities that are now the Democratic base:

Unlike the egalitarian farmer-labor liberalism that drew on the populist values of the small town and the immigrant neighborhood, metropolitan liberalism tends to define center-left politics not as self-help on the part of citizens but rather as charity for the disadvantaged carried out by affluent altruists. Tonight the fundraiser for endangered species; tomorrow the gala charity auction for poor children.

Not that it matters, as the Republicans “for all their folksy rhetoric, offer nothing but the economic program of their Wall Street Journal/Club for Growth wing.” Lind thinks some sort of third-party “Middle American” populist movement maybe on the way. Glenn Beck? Sarah Palin? Lou Dobbs? There’s enough anti-system populism floating around for that.

But Beck, Palin and Dobbs, and the populist-by-default Republicans, may be disappointed. Populism changes over time. Marc Ambinder assesses the new data on the last election:

It’s taken about a year, but thanks to new Census numbers and to Project Vote, we now have the most accurate picture of who voted, who didn’t vote, and how the voting patterns compare to previous elections. The highlights: 64% of the 204 million voting-age Americans voted, up about 6 million in number and 4 percentage points from 2004. Historically underrepresented groups made gains in this election. Non-whites made up more than 90% of the increase in the total number of voters. The authors conclude that had non-whites voted at the same percentage as whites, more than 5 million more votes would have been cast in 2008. The study, by Douglas Hess and Jody Herman, finds that had voters under 30 voted at the same rates as their counterparts over 30, more than 7 million additional ballots would have been cast.

No wonder Republicans worry about a Democratic demographic storm.

The old populism is pretty much old white folks. And Digby notes that this is the problem:

But where else are the Republicans going to get voters? Young people think they’re clowns. Racial and ethnic minorities know very well they hate them. Women can’t stand them. The only place they have to go is to those among the frightened older population who they can con into believing that the black president is trying to kill them. No other demographic out there beyond their crazy base believes anything they say.

She needs to come along to Thanksgiving dinner here. There are others. But yes, she has a point about the old white folks:

A good number of them are just conservatives who never liked Obama and just believe in their guts that he and the tax and spend hippies are going to give their Medicare to the blacks and Mexicans. But a lot of other older people just feel vulnerable and alone and mistrust what they see as hyperactive, neglectful youngsters who are driving the world into chaos. They are excellent targets for con artists, scammers and demagogues – and at this point conservatives are pretty much defined by those terms.

But then a lot of cheap populism is precisely that. And in practical terms it’s probably best just to watch football – even the Detroit Lions.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Elitism, Elitism on the Left, Michael Lind, Populist Politics, Populist Rage and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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