Toward a More Dangerous Populism

America is populism. That’s how we started, telling the British to stuff it, with a declaration that we needed no king. “We the people” could rule ourselves, working out among ourselves the way we lived – we’d make the rules, not some king who claimed some sort of divine right to order everything. God’s choice of King had nothing to do with it, or at least with taxation and public policy and civil law. In fact, God had nothing to do with any of that. The only mention of God in our big announcement was to suggest that God gave everyone certain inalienable rights – to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – and had stepped back to let us work out those three things all on our own. That was pure Deism – the Christianity of Jefferson and others, the belief that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of a Creator, who seems to be wonderful and worthy of worship, but who leaves the details of everyday life up to us, in this case the people. The current religious right in America, asserting religious authority, demands this public policy or that, on abortion and contraception, or gay marriage or prayer in government sessions or even tax policy, seems to forget that the founders, while Christians, were Christians of a different sort. They found the notion of ordering civic life on the basis of religious authority insulting. God wants us to think things through. God expects more of us, and demands more of us. Pointing to the Bible just won’t do. That’s not quite enough. Use your brain. He gave you that for a reason.

That’s the basic deal, even if it angers the born-again evangelical crowd, even if it leads to absurdities like the 1925 Scopes Trial and all the recent efforts to force public schools to counter any science being taught – that system of reason and observation of the natural world – with equal time for presenting the argument that reason and observation of the natural world are of limited usefulness, if they’re even useful at all. They wouldn’t dare ban the teaching of science now, the issue in the Scopes Trial, but they’d offer both arguments, and kids should be able to choose between the two. Whatever it is, God did it or made it, and that’s that, or there’s a way for actual people, we the people, to figure out how things came to be and how they work. That’s another form of authoritarianism versus populism, and the current born-again evangelical crowd is playing the part of the Tory loyalists from long ago. They didn’t get the 1776 memo. No king, and no God either, because He expects us to use our brains to do the right thing – it’s all up to the People. The first three words that started the country establish that.

That doesn’t mean what followed was easy. We’re still working out just who has those inalienable rights. Hamilton and Jefferson argued over who “the people” actually were – property owners or just about everyone – and the slaves were three-fifths people for a while, and property, until they weren’t. Then the issue was granting former slaves and their descendants an array of civil rights – unquestioned access to housing and shops and restaurants and public transportation, and jobs – and full voting rights. That wasn’t settled until the mid-sixties, and that they have those voting rights still bothers a good number of Republicans, who don’t like “certain people” finding it too easy to cast ballots – but then women didn’t get the vote until the early twentieth century. They weren’t quite “people” for a long time. Now the question is whether gay people are really “people” with the right to marry each other. Within the next year or two they will be people, nationwide, not just in a few states. These things take time.

This is all part of the American tradition. No one likes to get screwed over, and Americans do something about it. They elected FDR to stick it to the fat cats who had ruined the economy, and were glad that he set up rules for banks and Wall Street – creating the SEC and more – and set up Social Security and unemployment insurance and did all that New Deal stuff. The man may have been a rich dude, but he did stuff for the People, and people had been doing things for themselves anyway – workers formed unions, to get a better deal from the fat cats who owned everything. Every union strike in the first half of the twentieth century was a form of populism, and the few unions left now continue that American tradition. It’s just that people now call union workers lazy greedy folks who are out to ruin American businesses, and the folks in public service unions are even worse, as they’re asking for unwarranted goodies from the public itself – from the real People. So, obviously, they aren’t “the people” at all – they’re just greedy bastards ruining things for everyone else. It gets tricky. Sometimes you’re “the people” and sometimes you’re not. Things shift over time.

The most recent populist movement that changed everything has been the Tea Party Movement – which rose up in 2009 to take their country back, and flooded the House with angry folks who demanded an end of Obamacare, and a reduction in the national debt and federal budget deficit, to next to nothing, and an end to most government spending and most taxes, and then an end to regulation of most everything – the EPA and anything that hurt businesses – and then tighter border security and no amnesty for illegal immigrants, but they favored total war and the unconditional surrender of the bad guys over limited wars for limited goals, and they weren’t too happy with gay folks and Hollywood or any sort of social change.

That’s a lot of stuff, and that couldn’t be managed. They said they were “the people” rising up, but when even Republican support for the Tea Party suddenly drops twenty points something is amiss. The passionate outbursts, once so exciting, became tiresome, and the movement had been coopted anyway:

In an August 30, 2010, article in The New Yorker, Jane Mayer said that the billionaire brothers David H. Koch and Charles G. Koch and Koch Industries are providing financial and organizational support to the Tea Party movement through Americans for Prosperity, which David founded. The AFP’s “Hot Air Tour” was organized to fight against taxes on carbon use and the activation of a cap and trade program. In 1984, David Koch also founded Citizens for a Sound Economy, part of which became FreedomWorks in a 2004 split, another group that organized and supports the movement.

The fats cats found them useful, and decided to keep them alive, financially. The Koch brothers and many like them, and the folks on Wall Street, hate regulation and taxes – so they financed almost all the Tea Party 501(c)(4) non-profit organizations and all the rest. Who are “the people” here? The movement changed the political dialog in America, and the anger is still there, but the populism is gone.

Something else is taking its place:

Vice President Joe Biden appeared at a closed-door fundraiser in South Carolina Friday and delivered what one attendee called “an Elizabeth Warren-type speech” about the struggles of America’s middle class, remarks that were well-received by a room full of influential primary state Democrats. …

Biden touted the Obama administration’s record on the economy, multiple Democrats in the room told CNN, but he also painted a picture of a middle class still struggling while the nation’s top earners continue to line their pockets.

“He said we have some of the most productive workers in the world, but corporations are more concerned about their stockholders than they are about their employees,” said one prominent Democrat who attended the fundraiser but did not want to be identified discussing a private event. “He talked about how the fruits of labor go to stockholders, rather than to the people who are producing it. That the people making the money in this country are the corporations.”

Another Democrat in the room said the vice president “talked about how the system was rigged against the middle class. He said the economic realities of the middle class are diminishing and that the average middle-class family is finding it hard to make it economically.”…

Biden’s speech was described, to a person, as “populist.”

That one prominent Democrat who attended the fundraiser but did not want to be identified probably didn’t want to be identified because President Obama does try not to offend the fat cats all that much, and Hillary Clinton, the likely 2016 Democratic nominee, is well liked on Wall Street, as their friend, and of course most of the financial deregulation that led to the 2008 collapse of the economy was signed into law by her husband in the late nineties. Biden was off the reservation here, ruining Obama’s careful tap dance with Wall Street and undercutting Hillary Clinton, but Elizabeth Warren is the populist wave of the future.

Elizabeth Warren is an interesting person – now the senior senator from Massachusetts but a dirt-poor kid from Oklahoma who ended up a law professor at Harvard, specializing in bankruptcy law, who thought up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, even if, when it was time to head it, the Senate wouldn’t confirm her. The banks and Wall Street and the National Chamber of Commerce raised holy hell – she would fight for consumers and that would kill profits, and mean even more regulation. The Senate knew better, and she had been chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel created to oversee the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) – and Republicans, and particularly Tea Party Republicans, had hated the idea of spending that money to save the economy from total collapse. She didn’t believe there were more important things than saving the economy.

Actually, she was the other sort of populist, the kind that thinks government can be useful, once offering this:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody… You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

This may be the return of FDR populism, but she’s not running for president. She’s leading a populist movement, by default. She just wants things changed for the better:

Sen. Elizabeth Warren says her new book, “A Fighting Chance,” is not a prelude to a 2016 presidential campaign.

“I am not running for president,” the Massachusetts Democrat said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Asked if she would reconsider if Hillary Clinton took a pass on the 2016 race, Warren repeated: “I am not running for president.”

She has other fish to fry:

Warren struck a populist note in her interview, touting her new student loan reform bill, which would lower interest rates on government borrowing to below 4 percent.

“Our young people are being crushed by student loan debt,” she said. “This is a crisis that now is not just affecting families that are hurt by it; it’s affecting the whole economy.”

Warren also said that the political system was stacked against ordinary Americans.

“Washington works for anyone who can hire an army of lobbyists and lawyers,” she said, adding that it doesn’t work for middle-class families.

That’s it. She seems to have no ulterior motive. That makes her dangerous, as does what else she said:

“Your fans say you’re a populist, but your critics say you’re basically a socialist,” said host Bob Schieffer.

“I just don’t know where they get that,” Warren replied. “You know, look at the issues. I mean really, let’s take a look at minimum wage – I just believe nobody should work full time and live in poverty. And you know what? Most of America agrees. Student loans: I don’t think the U.S. government should be making tens of billions of dollars in profits off the backs of our students, which is what the current student loan system is doing. And I think most Americans agree with me on that.”

And this is curious:

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) discussed her relationship with President Barack Obama in an interview Monday with HuffPost Live, faulting his administration for being too close to big banks, but praising his support for Warren’s brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

“I’ve made no secret about my disagreements with the administration’s policies, particularly as they relate to the largest financial institutions,” Warren told HuffPost Live. “Like I say in the book, the president chose his economic team, and when there was only so much time and so much money to go around, his economic team chose Wall Street instead of American families who were in trouble.”

“But I also give full credit to the president,” Warren continued. “If President Obama had not been in the White House, we would never have gotten the consumer agency through. He stood up for it, he fought for it, and he made sure that even when those on his own team might have been willing to throw that agency under the bus, that the consumer agency was something that stayed part of the financial reforms and stayed strong.”

But he did choose Wall Street instead of American families who were in trouble. Establishment-Republicans have had four years of endless troubles with their Tea Party wing, and now establishment-Democrats have their own problems with this new populism. Joe Biden jumped on the bandwagon before he got run over. Hillary Clinton may get run over, and Thomas Frank sees a confluence of factors reshaping how we think:

What makes Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” such a triumph is that it seems to have been written specifically to demolish the great economic shibboleths of our time. The stock market is not an instrument of economic democracy, it seems; nor does every natural-born American get a chance to run (which is to say, to loot) a Fortune 500 company. The gap between the billionaires and the rest of us is not really a matter of talent or education, we learn; nor do the rich really deserve every last penny of their winnings. Yet it seems that those winnings, once won, multiply relentlessly as time passes, in a way that far outstrips wages even in the best years.

The effect of knowing all these things is a healthy one, like when a fever breaks and all those fanciful explanations for things that we had imagined turn out to have been just a dream. The simplest explanations are in fact the true ones, and we owe Piketty thanks for reminding us of this. …

I was puzzled at first by the extraordinary success of Piketty’s book; despite his commitment to cant-free prose, it is not an easy read. Besides, most of what Piketty tells us has been told to us before, many times over, in a three-decade long parade of forgotten treatises and sad New York Times stories on downsizing and deindustrialization. But there is something about dispassionate statistical proof, comprehensively brought together, that warms the liberal heart. …

If the world of letters was as coldly mathematical as the world of capital, we could now say that any debate over inequality is over: There can be no doubt that we are fast approaching a nineteenth-century-style distribution of wealth. That’s why the overwhelming sensibility of Piketty’s magnum opus is a dark fatalism, a feeling that mankind is groping blindly while in the grip of a determining force far larger than ourselves – namely, Piketty’s now-famous return on capital, growing wealth from generation to generation and always outstripping wages – that has only slackened on rare occasions.

The new populists, more dangerous because no one has bought and sold them, are ganging up on the fat cats, who can’t buy them this time, and Frank adds historical context:

It is useful to recall when considering what to do about inequality that an uncomplicated hatred of caste, privilege, and perpetuities runs deep in the American grain. I was reminded of this a few months ago when I pulled from my shelf a forgotten classic on the subject, the 1939 book “The Ending of Hereditary American Fortunes” by Gustavus Myers, a journalist of the muckraking persuasion. The story begins appropriately enough in 1776, when Thomas Jefferson, then a delegate to the Virginia legislature, began the fight to abolish primogeniture and entail, the archaic laws that maintained enormous landed estates from one generation to the next. As the American Revolution proceeded, state after state got on board with Jefferson, levelling our would-be aristocracy in an explosion of straight-up class warfare.

We’ve been here before:

As Gustavus Myers tells the story, there were victories and defeats in America’s long war against inherited privilege, until finally we get to the twentieth century and the estate tax, which make up the final chapters in the journalist’s account. Although it was established in 1916, the tax on inheritance was raised to deliberately confiscatory levels in 1935. The rationale then was as plain as it was in Jefferson’s day: Americans raised that tax because Americans detest aristocracy. “Great accumulations of wealth cannot be justified on the basis of personal and family security,” said President Roosevelt, on the occasion of demanding the massive increase in estate taxes. “In the last analysis such accumulations amount to the perpetuation of great and undesirable concentration of control in a relatively few individuals over the employment and welfare of many, many others.”

Check the IRS website today, however, and you will find that critical moment in tax history explained not as the expression of a leveling social policy but merely as a way to “generate needed funds.” Our contemporary debate over inequality is the same: a bland, technical matter of think-tanks and academic conferences and debates among professional economists – just another problem for the experts to solve. It is as though we have completely forgotten the democratic passions that drove our ancestors.

Frank is not happy with that:

As Gustavus Myers told us back in 1939, bringing the aristocracy to heel is entirely within our power and our tradition, and American statesmen from Jefferson to FDR (the man on the nickel, the man on the dime) have taken enthusiastic part in the business of leveling. There is nothing utopian about it at all. It is not an opium dream to imagine that Grover Norquist and company might one day be defeated or that the estate tax might be brought back in full Rooseveltian force; both are eminently possible, if only the Democrats would pull their heads out of their butts.

Elizabeth Warren is asking them to do that, in a nice way, or simply showing them how it’s done. “We the people” used to mean something, before the Tea Party folks gave that away, or had it stolen from them, and weren’t “the people” any longer – but maybe that had to happen. The Koch brothers One Percent found that what the Tea Party crowd was angry about was useful to them, so they bought it and used it for their own ends. Here, with what might be called the new Warren Populism, they’ll find nothing useful, other than it might lead to a thriving economy where folks have actual disposable income to buy their latest gizmos and fashions and whatnot. Still, they will see this as dangerous. Populism always is. Ask the British. The American “people” tossed them out.

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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 Toward a More Dangerous Populism

  1. Rick says:

    “We’re still working out just who has those inalienable rights. Hamilton and Jefferson argued over who ‘the people’ actually were – property owners or just about everyone – and the slaves were three-fifths people for a while…

    You’d get the idea that these disagreed about who “the people” are, not just from your link, but especially from our collective recollection of Thomas Jefferson. I think it’s more complicated than that. Take, for example, what Jefferson said back in 1784, from the link:

    “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his particular deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”

    Wait! Did he say, “Those who labor in the earth?” Was he referring to slaves?

    Not quite — any more than he was likely including Africans when he slapped that line, “All men are created equal” into the Declaration of Independence. (Some insist he’d always wanted to abolish slavery, but unlike George Washington, he freed hardly any of the hundreds that he owned.)

    And it’s worth noting that when that issue of “three-fifths” of a person was first debated, back during the Articles of Confederation, Jefferson sided with the southern states and against the slaves when he complained in his notes, that “the southern states would be taxed ‘according to their numbers and their wealth conjunctly, while the northern would be taxed on numbers only.'”

    No, Jefferson was referring to the slave’s owners, — and, okay, yes, also “yeoman” farmers. He always claimed that “farmers”, people like himself, were more virtuous that “bankers”, people who just moved money around — people like Hamilton — and argued that agriculture should form the basis of America’s economy, rather than industry and commerce, since those two would lead to “wage” laborers who worked for others, not themselves. This last view was one reason Jefferson disliked cities, and distrusted the immoral people who lived in them.

    Yeah, but how about this?:

    “The story begins appropriately enough in 1776, when Thomas Jefferson, then a delegate to the Virginia legislature, began the fight to abolish primogeniture and entail, the archaic laws that maintained enormous landed estates from one generation to the next. As the American Revolution proceeded, state after state got on board with Jefferson, levelling our would-be aristocracy in an explosion of straight-up class warfare.”

    Yeah, but not really. The “fight to abolish primogeniture and entail”, in any sense of “straight-up class warfare”, wasn’t really. If anything, it tended to be warfare among the rich — specifically in the case of “primogeniture”, an attack on the super-rich by their merely-rich younger brothers. Abolishing it meant it could not automatically be assumed that the oldest son would inherit everything, and doing away with “entail” meant the same for inheritance or sale to any other than by “the heirs of his body”. This was really just a case of cutting the rest of the heirs a break.

    But while getting rid of all that was good for the new country (“In Democracy in America,” says Wikipedia, “Alexis de Tocqueville argues that the abolition of the laws of primogeniture and entail in the law of inheritance of private property … result in the more rapid division of land and thus force landed people to seek wealth outside the family estate in order to maintain their previous standard of living, accelerating the death of the landed aristocracy and also quickening the shift to democracy”), it was not necessarily striking a blow for “the people”.

    What’s weird, of course, is that Jefferson, the so-called “man of the people”, was born to wealth and lived the wealthy life-style all his life, while Hamilton, the illegitimate son of a poor West Indian woman, was not “well born” at all, but was, at a young age, taken under the wing of some rich New York merchant — and yet he was the man who said this:

    “All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are rich and well born; the other, the mass of the people.”

    Not that I don’t have a lot of respect for the abilities and intelligence of both these guys, each in his own way, and am grateful for what both brought to the founding of the nation, but I still contend that they were both upper-class rich guys who, to a certain extent, had very little use for the truly poor people of their day, and were pretty much pulling much of this stuff out of their collective ass.

    Rick

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