Catching the Populism Wave

Not that planning is stupid, but most Americans follow the surfing theory of career development. You sit with your high school guidance counsellor and talk about what you want to do with your life, and there may be aptitude and interest tests involved – or at least there used to be. Actually, there may be no more high school guidance counsellors anymore – budget cuts and all that. But the general idea is that somewhere in there, in your last year of high school, you began to plan your life, given the resources and talents you had on hand, if any. What did you want to be when you grew up? Would you go to college? Which college had the best program in what you decided, way back then, would be your life’s work, and which college would have you, and which college could you afford? There were family dynamics to consider too – every mother wants a doctor in the family, or at least a lawyer, but far too many kids want to be a professional musician or an Indiana Jones archeologist or something, and there’s also the thought of a useful degree – in accounting or hotel and restaurant management, and certainly not in English or Art History. These matters can be settled in negotiation, with a lot of whining and weeping involved, but they really don’t matter that much. College students are famous for changing their major after their freshman year – their heart just isn’t in the field they thought would be their life’s work, or they discover they’re quite bad at the work involved to get to where they thought they wanted to go. It’s like surfing – you wait and catch the right wave – or at least one you can ride – and all surfers know that as you wait and watch the sets roll in, it’s usually the ninth wave that’s good. It’s not your choice. The ocean is what it is. Watch and wait. The right wave will come along, or it won’t.

Fine, ride that wave, but it’s the same thing after college. Very few spend their lives in one career. English teachers become systems managers, systems managers end up running wineries, would-be Indiana Jones archeologists end up selling trucks in Altoona, and someone is going to end up being an accountant after all. Americans have multiple careers because, like the ocean the surfer watches, the economy has its sets of waves too – whole industries disappear, others pop up out of nowhere, work once done here is now done overseas, and work once done there is now done here. The best you can do is pay attention, but even that may be folly. No one in the seventies imagined a powerful computer on everyone’s desk, linked to everyone else’s powerful computer – technology like that changes everything, and no one can plan for it, because no one could have imagined it. It’s wave after wave, each new. Catch the right one, or at least a good one, if you can. That’s the only useful theory of career development, the surfing theory.

That’s also the only useful theory on political development too. Planning is not terribly useful. Karl Rove, often referred to as Bush’s Brain, was happy as a clam when he got young George elected president, and then reelected. That certainly wasn’t easy either time, and packing the House and Senate were difficult, but what Rove had planned, and what he told everyone was surely coming, was a permanent Republican majority – forever. That was the plan – first suggested by Kevin Phillips in the sixties – but that wasn’t to be. Our preemptive war in Iraq turned out to be a moral and geopolitical disaster, or even worse, a domestic political embarrassment, and there was Katrina, and then the collapse of the economy. Losing the House and Senate in the 2006 midterms didn’t help matters. Rove didn’t see that wave coming, or pretended it wasn’t rolling in fast, and Iraq and Katrina and the collapse of the economy were giant waves he simply couldn’t handle – kind of like the hundred-foot monster waves on the north shore of Oahu no one can ride. His master plan, for that permanent Republican majority, was useless, like all political plans. Barack Obama became president, winning easily, and a Democratic House and Senate then passed the Affordable Care Act. The plan was dead.

The mirror plan on the other side was articulated in The Emerging Democratic Majority – the 2004 book from John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, with its simple premise. The voting population most likely to favor Republicans will remain static – old, white, evangelical and primarily rural, along with the very top level of the business community, desperate to keep their taxes low and end all possible regulation and be allowed to pay their workers as little as possible, if they have to have any at all. Every other voting population, however, will grow, and eventually bury them.

Even the Republicans know this. That’s why they talk about reaching out to minorities and women and gays – and folks who still think that science is pretty nifty – even if they’d rather not reach out to these awful people and thus never really do. They get the general theory, which, curiously, didn’t account for what happened in the 2010 midterms. There was another monster wave, one that the Democrats did not see coming – the Tea Party. The Tea Party helped the Republicans take back the House, and inserted themselves in the Senate as disrupters, moving everything to the right. Ted Cruz has done that to his party in the Senate, and the Tea Party caucus in the House has led Speaker Boehner around by the nose. Judis and Teixeira never saw any of that coming, but the ocean is what it is, and so is the American public. Watch and wait. Count the waves. Catch the ninth one – even if that rule is nonsense too.

The idea is that it pays to be opportunistic. Don’t plan. Ride the wave when a good one comes along, or even a ragged one when necessary. In 2013, the Republicans were stupid enough to shut down the government for sixteen days, costing the economy twenty-four billion dollars, causing immense pain for millions of government workers, who had to go without a paycheck for quite a bit, and decimating the tens of thousands of contractors who supply the federal government with everything from paper clips to janitorial services. That was an effort by the Republicans to force Obama to repeal the Affordable Care Act entirely, or to force congressional Democrats to agree to defund it, or to force Obama to delay the whole thing for a year, or two or three – the demands got hazier the more it became apparent that Obama and the Democrats would have none of that. In the end the Republicans got nothing for their efforts, other than scorn – they agreed to let the government reopen, and agreed to suspend the debt ceiling limits, so America wouldn’t default on all its debt and the world’s economy wouldn’t collapse, and the Affordable Care Act stood. The Republicans wasted everyone’s time, at great cost, even to them, with that shutdown, and their poll numbers fell off the cliff – lower than ever recorded – and the Democrats rode that wave, riding high and fine, laughing at them. Yes, the Republicans could be that stupid, but then, within two weeks, Obamacare was rolled out, and everything went wrong for the Democrats. The website was a disaster, and it turned out that many Americans who bought their own individual plans on the private market had those health plans cancelled, because the new law forbids junk plans that covered next to nothing, even if people liked them. No one had mentioned that, even if that’s a tiny segment of the market, but both combined to produce an impressive wave the Republicans are still riding, sneering at the Democrats. Of course like all waves it will run out in the sand and Obamacare soon will be just fine – but you ride the wave of the moment. Surfers live in the moment. Waves come and go.

The trick for the coming year will be for each party to watch the incoming sets and choose the right wave, the one that promises a long and glorious ride to the shore, and the Democrats have their eyes on the wave of populism that is just forming now. That’s their usual default anyway, but this year something is up, as Robert Borosage sees it:

The Beltway crowd has discovered populism. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s surging popularity from her aggressive defense of Social Security and demand for Wall Street accountability has triggered talk of a populist challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016. Bill De Blasio indicted New York’s gilded age inequality in his stunning victory in the New York Mayoral race. This month, President Obama returned to his campaign themes, delivering a speech calling inequality “the defining challenge of our time.”

Republicans, preoccupied with their Tea Party zealots, mostly have avoided joining the debate, but the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party raised the alarm. In an incoherent article appropriately placed in the Wall Street Journal, the New Democrats at the Third Way scorned Warren for defending Social Security and Medicare and peddling a “dead end” “we can have it all fantasy.”

The battle has begun, and this may be the wave the Democrats have been waiting for:

Populist movements grow out of popular discontent. For over thirty years, inequality has been growing. Profits and productivity and CEO salaries have risen, but workers haven’t shared in the growth. But hard times, as Lawrence Goodwyn, the great historian of the Populist Movement notes, do not generate democratic movements. Times have been “hard” for most people for a long time. When families lose ground, people tend to believe that they are at fault, that their luck has been bad, that they made the wrong choices. They work harder; they take on debt; they get by. Resignation and deference are normal. Movements start only when reality – and organizers – begin to open people’s eyes.

The economy hasn’t worked for working people for a long time. Wall Street’s excesses then led to the Great Recession. Yet the banks were bailed out; banker bonuses were paid, while homeowners were abandoned. The wealthy recovered – while most Americans struggle to stay afloat. Occupy Wall Street helped crystallize people’s sense about the 1%. They rig the rules, as Elizabeth Warren put it, to benefit themselves. Running for re-election in a lousy economy, the president was wise enough to embrace populist themes. And Mitt Romney, with his money summering in Cayman Island tax havens, proved the perfect foil.

This emerging awareness seems spreading among Millennials, who are entering the worst jobs market since the Great Depression. It also finds fertile grounds among people of color and single women, hardest hit in the recession and having a hard time recovering from it. That is the threat: Obama’s ascendant “rising American majority” is looking for change and is open to populist arguments.

Borosage has much more, but that’s the gist of it – he sees an impressive wave here. Ride it.

That seems to be the general idea, and the best way for the Democrats to ride that wave is to wait out the problems with Obamacare, which will sort themselves out, and hammer the Republicans on two issues where all the polls show the American public wants action now – extending long-term unemployment benefits and raising the minimum wage.

Matthew Yglesias addresses the logic of extending long-term unemployment benefits:

This time last year, DC-based writers were having a surprisingly busy workweek as Congress hustled to strike a last-minute deal around the “fiscal cliff.” The negotiations were primarily focused on taxes, but the final deal included an extension of unemployment insurance benefits for the long-term unemployed. This year, the year-end deal got done much faster and much cleaner – but Republicans wouldn’t agree to another UI extension, and Democrats didn’t want to go to the mattresses over it.

The result is a morally scandalous situation that will start playing out in the New Year. People who’ve been out of work for a long time obviously really need some money to get by, and they’re going to lose their money.

And they’re not going to make up for it by getting jobs.

One way we know they won’t is from the experience of North Carolina, which for reasons of state politics did a UI cutoff for the long-term unemployed this year. Evan Soltas summarized the results, and you can read Reihan Salam on the same thing if you want more right-wing street cred, but suffice it to say there was no “jobs boom” where lazy bums suddenly got off their asses and found readily available work. It turns out that being unemployed is really humiliating and depressing, and people who’ve been unemployed for a long time are people who genuinely can’t find any jobs. Cut them off from their benefits, and they end up scrounging at soup kitchens – they just can’t get work.

These folks aren’t lazy. The world changed out from under them:

Basically employers need to use some heuristics to decide whom to hire, and one heuristic they use is massive discrimination against the long-term unemployed. There’s a great inquiry to be had as to whether this is a pure irrational bias or some kind of satisfiying form of rational statistical discrimination, but the point is that the people who are about to lose their UI benefits are people whom nobody will hire.

At a time when interest rates continue to be super low and the budget deficit is modest and falling rapidly, cutting them off from benefits is simply inhumane. It’s cruel and pointless, and it’s probably economically counterproductive too since it’ll mean a loss in demand for businesses that the long-term jobless might otherwise patronize. But mostly it’s cruel.

Extending their benefits may not be the best solution, but there may be no choice here:

The idea of UI is to tide people over until they can find a job. The problem with the long-term unemployed at this point is they aren’t going to be able to find jobs. But rather than cutting them off from money, the challenge calls for more vigorous efforts to get them back into work through some mix of direct government hiring and relocation programs to help connect them with the regional pockets of labor shortage that are emerging.

The Republicans will not go for either of those things, but they have nothing else. Hit them with that, although Ryan Cooper argues this might be hard:

The debate over “paying for” an increase in benefits – that is, finding spending cuts elsewhere in the budget to offset an increase on unemployment benefits – highlight the extent to which Democrats have caved to the Republican mindset on spending. Democrats are right to advocate for extending benefits – but they shouldn’t fear to propose a straightforward spending increase.

Deficit spending may be appropriate here, as Jared Bernstein argues:

This is not a simple tale of good D’s and bad R’s. It’s also the result of a fiscal policy standard, often supported by both parties, that stands firmly against any deficit spending. Thus, when Rep. Boehner asked D’s a few weeks ago how they planned to pay for the $25 billion extension of UI, they were in a box. Whatever spending cuts they could find were already in the little Ryan-Murray budget deal, the R’s would not countenance increasing tax revenues, and the notion of putting it on the deficit was largely verboten by both parties.

This is a mistake. With long-term unemployment still highly elevated, adding a temporary extension of UI benefits to the deficit is totally legitimate fiscal policy.


Let me be clear: Republicans are the major villains here. They are clearly the ones who are really itching to cut benefits, because they’ve convinced themselves that benefits are coddling people and keeping them from taking jobs. This is preposterous and has been since the recession started.

Cooper also cites Matt Bruenig with this:

If it was the case that unemployed people are just refusing to take jobs, then you would see a great deal more reported job openings. The number of unemployed people would be high and the number of job openings would be high as well. In that case, you might force the two to come together by trying to starve out the unemployed, as the conservatives support. But when jobs are scarce because of a weak economy, starving out the unemployed won’t put them in jobs that simply do not exist.

Well, duh! This is fairly obvious, even if the Republicans can’t see it, like a surfer who won’t watch the incoming waves, and Cooper sees a larger argument:

What is the point of all this austerity? We’ve cut the budget deficit from $1.4 trillion in 2009 to $680 billion this year – it fell 37 percent in 2013 alone. If the idea was to improve the government’s budget position, then it has succeeded wildly (at the expense of other priorities). On that path, surely we can afford to borrow a measly $24 billion to keep millions of our fellow citizens off the street, right?

Republicans will probably disagree. But Democrats shouldn’t fear to loudly advocate for a straight-up spending increase. They have both economic theory and good politics behind them.

Then there’s that other issue:

Democratic Party leaders, bruised by months of attacks on the new health care program, have found an issue they believe can lift their fortunes both locally and nationally in 2014: an increase in the minimum wage.

The effort to take advantage of growing populism among voters in both parties is being coordinated by officials from the White House, labor unions and liberal advocacy groups.

In a series of strategy meetings and conference calls among them in recent weeks, they have focused on two levels: an effort to raise the federal minimum wage, which will be pushed by President Obama and congressional leaders, and a campaign to place state-level minimum wage proposals on the ballot in states with hotly contested congressional races.

With polls showing widespread support for an increase in the $7.25-per-hour federal minimum wage among both Republican and Democratic voters, top Democrats see not only a wedge issue that they hope will place Republican candidates in a difficult position, but also a tool with which to enlarge the electorate in a nonpresidential election, when turnout among minorities and youths typically drops off.

They see the wave here, and they’ll ride it:

In the capital, Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats are supporting legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2015. Mr. Obama is planning a series of speeches across the country focused on improving wages for workers, aides said, many of them timed to coincide with key minimum-wage votes in Congress. Income inequality is also likely to play a prominent role in his State of the Union address next month.

At the same time, Democratic campaign officials and liberal activists – conceding that Democrats face tough prospects in some Senate races – are working to put minimum-wage increases on the ballot next year in places like Arkansas, Alaska and South Dakota. The hope is to stoke Democratic turnout in conservative-leaning states where the party’s Senate candidates have been put on the defensive by the mishandled rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

This is pretty simple:

“The more Republicans obsess on repealing the Affordable Care Act and the more we focus on rebuilding the middle class with a minimum-wage increase, the more voters will support our candidates,” said Representative Steve Israel of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. …

Sixty-four percent of independents and even 57 percent of Republicans said they supported increasing the minimum wage, according to a CBS News poll last month. Some 70 percent of self-described “moderates” said they supported an increase.

Ride the incoming wave. Repealing the Affordable Care Act wasn’t ever much of a wave anyway; in fact, that wave petered out as the government shutdown ended. It’s no more than the memory of a ripple now. There will be no repeal.

That wave passed. Get over it. After all, in high school you thought you’d end up as a professional musician, playing in the wind section of the Chicago Symphony or something, and ended up as a pre-med major in college, who changed his major to English, and ended up a systems manager at a locomotive factory in Canada, and then found yourself blogging and doing photography in Hollywood – or your own experience may be some other odd history of riding the cool wave that came along at the moment. None of the planning made any difference at all. Maybe the Democrats are learning this, and maybe Republicans are just lousy surfers.

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.
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1 Response to Catching the Populism Wave

  1. Rick says:

    Karl Rove was so successful getting Bush elected, he planned on a “Permanent Republican Majority”, but was blindsided:

    “Rove didn’t see that wave coming, or pretended it wasn’t rolling in fast, and Iraq and Katrina and the collapse of the economy were giant waves he simply couldn’t handle … His master plan, for that permanent Republican majority, was useless, like all political plans.”

    But when you think about it, it might not have been Mother Nature that did him in; all of these catastrophes were the handiwork of his own candidate.

    Certainly Iraq. Yes, there are still people alive today (I know some personally) who don’t really believe Iraq was the most unnecessary “elective” war ever; and how Bush handled Katrina was simply putting into action the classic conservative theory of expecting local people, who freely choose to live in disaster zones, be responsible for handling their own local problems (until he and his people started realizing the American people actually expected the federal government to do something about it); and how much of our recession was not the result of rich people given so many generous tax breaks that they didn’t know what to do with them, so they sunk them in mysterious and dangerous “financial instruments”, invented by Wall Street for the sole purpose of serving as a parking place for money that should have been out there in the economy, doing us all some good? Permanent “Republican Majority” my ass; it was more like, “Pride goeth before the fall!”

    It was classic Pogo: Bush and the Republicans had met the enemy, and it was them! And it still is.

    And maybe someday, history will tell us it also is for Obama and the Democrats. Some day we may all look back and wonder why we let the Republicans set the national agenda on not doing anything about the economy. After all, when what is happening today happened back in the 1930s, FDR and the Democrats tried to stop it, by creating jobs and getting the jobless into them.

    And did it not help back then? There are conservatives today who try to rewrite history by saying it only made things worse, but the charts show that’s not true; the economy grew throughout the 1930s, and only really took off when WWII did for the economy what the rest of us were too afraid to do — making us borrow huge amounts of money, then spending it.

    We should be fighting to do that now, and will someday regret that back at the beginning of 2014, Democrats didn’t have the guts to stop kissing Republican ass and start making the case to the American people for doing what’s right.


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