The Populist Moment

Richard Eskow

Of all the myths that circulate in Washington, perhaps none is more prevalent or intractable than the one that says that the United States is a “moderate” nation – and that the “center” of public opinion lies somewhere between the views of conservative Democrats and those of less extreme Republicans (a relative term at best).

The polling data shows conclusively that this is wrong, but the mythology refuses to die.

According to the myth, the rise of populism is to be condemned as “polarization,” a situation that the capital’s insider subculture routinely laments – even when it involves something that in other historical moments would be described as “a debate.”

In this worldview, “populists” are as extreme as Tea Party radicals and are to be treated with equal disdain. At best they’re useful naïfs who can be trotted out to stir up the base at election time, then to be conveniently sidelined again for the next four years. And that worst they’re childlike ideologues, to be condescended to and dismissed.

In this worldview, anyone who labels himself a “liberal” or “progressive” is pushing a hopelessly sentimental ideology that has been thoroughly rejected by an increasingly conservative public. If only these “extremists” on both sides would get out of the way, so the legend goes, then conservatively inclined Democrats could get together with their more pragmatic Republican colleagues to carry out the kinds of policies the American people want: deficit reduction, cuts to Social Security and Medicare, privatization, and other grown-up initiatives.

There’s one problem with this worldview: Poll after poll has consistently shown that it is wrong. It turns out that the American people, like those politicians of the left whom the pundits love to decry, are a pretty populist bunch.

Overall, more Americans still describe themselves as “conservative” then liberal, but that figure has fallen slightly as liberal identification has risen. And bear in mind: no major American politician has defended the “liberal” label for many decades, certainly not in the fearless way that Franklin D. Roosevelt did.

But self-labeling is probably the least significant part of the political equation. Politicians insist that the real key to victory lies in winning over independents and winnable members of the opposite party. (They tend to underplay the importance of turnout, which is driven by enthusiasm among the base. Fortunately, as were about to see, those two issues line up nicely – at least for the Democrats.)

if you believe that, then a key question for Democrats becomes: where do these two groups stand on populism?  The answer, as they say, may surprise you – especially if you are a Washington politician, pundit, or political consultant.

The classic definition of an “economic populist” is a person who feels that wealth is unfairly distributed in this country. Unsurprisingly, most Republicans don’t feel that way. According to surveys collected by PollingReport.com, more than a third of them agree that our economy’s distribution of wealth is unfair. That includes an overwhelming 80 percent of Democrats and 62 percent – nearly two-thirds – of “independents.”

That means that a Democratic candidate who pushes populism has a chance of attracting two-thirds of independents and more than one-third of the opposition party’s voters.

This enthusiasm translates into a desire for more government action, and the poll numbers become stronger as the questions get more specific. Of those polled by Pew, 53 percent thought that the government should be doing a lot to reduce poverty, for example, and 82 percent thought that it should do either “a lot” or “some” to help the poor.

More than two-thirds of those polled thought the government should do “a lot” or “some” to reduce inequality. Fifty-four percent of voters thought taxes should be raised on corporations and the wealthy. And voters have consistently said that the government should place more emphasis on spending to improve the economy than it should on reducing the budget deficit – at a time when it has consistently done the opposite.

What’s more, 69 percent of voters would rather protect Social Security then reduce the deficit and only 18 percent disagree. And yet cuts to Social Security have been proposed by both the Democratic president and his Republican opponents in Congress. Previous polls have shown that this opposition to Social Security cuts was shared by three-quarters of Republican voters, and even 76 percent of self-described Tea Party members.

Is it any wonder the polls also show that Americans are disillusioned with their system of government?

Americans are “populist” on the minimum wage, too. A Quinnipiac poll shows that voters overwhelmingly favor raising the minimum wage, by 71 percent to 27 percent.

Overall, Americans continue to believe that our government should be doing more to fix our broken economy. The Quinnipiac poll showed that 39 percent of voters consider the economy the highest priority for President Obama and Congress, and 20 percent of them gave other economically related issues the top ranking, but only 23 percent ranked the federal budget deficit the highest.

And yet, budget discussions will undoubtedly center on the extent and nature of additional cuts to be made. But there are signs of a potential shift on the horizon. We’ve seen an increasing number of leaders rise to national prominence on a populist platform, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Jeff Merkley, Sherrod Brown, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. There’s been a shift in rhetoric from the President and other Democratic leaders, along with a renewed emphasis on populist issues like an increase in the minimum wage.

Still, the cultural forces that knit Washington’s tribal figures together are strong. That city’s myths and rituals are powerful. The call of self-interest, whether it involves revolving-door corporate jobs for lesser figures or hedge-fund driven wealth for former presidents, is undoubtedly even stronger.

That means there will be an ongoing temptation to respond to this shift in public opinion by offering some form of Populism Lite, a set of watered-down proposals designed to look like the fundamental change people want. But you can’t fake change. You certainly can’t fake change in an economic reality which people live through, and suffer through, on a daily basis.

The signs increasingly indicate that, however much the folkways of Washington may resist, this nation has entered a Populist Moment. If you live and work inside the Beltway, you ignore it at your own peril.

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