“Populist pitch fizzles,” reads the breathless headline of The Hill, a publication catering to beltway insiders. Obama’s popularity is sinking; two-thirds of voters think the country is on the wrong track; and the Democratic majority in the Senate looks increasingly at risk.
Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid then rolled out the Democrats 2014 "Fair Shot for Everyone” agenda, promising Senate battles on measures to raise the minimum wage, guarantee pay equity for women, make child care and college more affordable, defend Medicare, and drive a jobs strategy focused on manufacturing and rebuilding our infrastructure -- paid for by closing tax loopholes for the rich and corporations. Republican pollster Frank Luntz immediately greeted him with a new poll by yet another conservative front bizarrely named "Each American Dream" that purported to find that this agenda was a loser with swing voters.
Has the populist moment expired, as evanescent as the Occupy movement that roused opposition to the 1%? Should politicians return, as urged by former Arizona Republican Senator John Kyl, “honorary chairman” of the new group, to protecting the interests of employers and high income earners?
Don’t shelve the pitchforks. In fact, populist attitudes are strong and deep across the American landscape. Poll after poll, as reported by The Populist Majority, a web site devoted to compiling the most recent opinion research on American views on the economy, show that majorities hold clear populist postures. (The site is updated constantly and worth regular visits).
For example, in the March bipartisan Battleground Poll by Lake Research and the Tarrance Group, nearly two-thirds (64%) believe the economic rules in this country unfairly favor the rich. Six of ten (59%) agree government should be doing something to reverse the gap between the rich and everyone else. People are suspicious about government, not surprisingly, because they don’t think government serves them. Most Americans think of themselves as middle class, but 72% believe that the middle class “have it toughest in our economic system,” because there are “assistance programs for the poor and tax breaks for the rich, but no real help for middle class people.”
Or consider the February McClatchy-Marist poll which reported 85% of voters believe that there are “different rules for the well connected, people with money” while only 14% believe everyone plays more or less by the same rules.
On policy, McClatchy gave voters a classic ideological choice: should the focus of government should be more on raising the minimum wage and providing job training and education or more on cutting corporate taxes and reducing regulations on business? Democrats chose the first naturally by 82% to 15%. But independents agreed, preferring the first 58% to 38% who chose cutting corporate taxes. (Luntz would no doubt report only that the 38% represented the "true swing" voter). The outliers were Republicans who favored tax cuts over hiking the minimum age by 60 to 35%.
Democrats: Against the Odds
The problem for Democrats isn’t that populist appeals have fizzled. It's that they haven't yet been tried. It’s that it’s hard to see anyone walking the walk. As Jim Manley, Reid’s former spokesman, put it: “You always want a contrast. It’s always better to have votes to run on, and there hasn’t been a lot to run on so far.” Moreover, Democrats are far from unified on message, with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee boasting that “every one of our Senate candidates has a message that is unique to them and their states.” The problem is when the ship is sinking, every man or woman for his or herself is likely to add to the casualties.
Democratic incumbents are up against it. It's the sixth year of the Obama presidency. Americans are struggling, still plagued by mass unemployment, stagnant wages, lousy jobs. So two-thirds of the country sensibly thinks the country is on the wrong track, and most think we're still in a recession. This isn’t surprising since the wealthiest 1% pocketed 95% of the income growth from 2009-2012. The Republican Congress is less popular than the president, but voters tend to hold the party in the White House responsible. And they are itching to throw the bums out. And all this is exacerbated by the bi-election turnout patterns that slant to older, wealthier, whiter voters rather than the Democratic Party’s rising American electorate of the young, people of color and unmarried women.
Democrats have yet to put forth and fight for a compelling agenda. Pushing to raise the minimum wage and restore unemployment benefits is helpful for the battle exposes exactly which side Republicans are on. But we have a broad middle class that is deeply pessimistic. They are working harder simply to stay afloat. They don’t see either party or government doing much to help. They see government more likely to cater to powerful special interests and the rich than to them. They are looking for a bold strategy that could make this economy produce good Americans jobs again, reviving the American dream.
Any politician with a populist message has to overcome sensible voter cynicism. Steelworkers have heard candidate after candidate promise a new deal in trade, only to vote to pass the next NAFTA style accord. For years, Democrats have campaigned against tax breaks for companies that move jobs abroad, only to vote to extend the tax loopholes for global corporations and banks. And Senate candidates must scramble to raise millions in our corrupted politics. Voters aren’t fools to think those contributions come with a price.
Moreover, Republicans will launch their own faux populist appeals. Republican posturing on health care reform is, in my view, not likely to be very important in the fall elections. But Republicans will run on jobs and Obama's failed economy combined with populist sallies against Democratic incumbents for voting to cut Medicare to pay for Obamacare.
Harry Reid’s "Fair Shot for All" agenda at least could put Democrats on the field. Raising the minimum wage and reviving help for the long-term unemployed are both morally right and a boost to the economy. A bold plan to rebuild the country paid for by taxing profits stashed abroad by multinationals would be overwhelmingly popular and would put people to work. Pay equity for women, making child care more affordable, paid family leave are vital not only to working women but also to the families that count on their income. Making college affordable – and relieving the obscene debt burden on the young – are essential to our future.
And if Reid carries through with his promise to have vote after vote after vote on these measures, with Republicans obstructing all of them, the argument may succeed in defining a clearer choice for voters. But Democrats have to do more than simply announce a wish list. They have to fight for it. They have to show some grit and some unity. Voters are in a sensibly surly mood. The Democrats only hope is when they go to throw the bums out, they choose different bums to toss.