In the week since Scott Brown's election in Massachusetts, pundits have been offering advice on how Democrats can maintain their congressional majorities and the President can save his mandate. A word that comes up a lot in this discussion is "populism." Democrats, it's suggested, need to capture the populist initiative from the Republicans and/or the Tea Party movement. The Supreme Court decision freeing corporations to spend unlimited amounts on political advertising has given these strategy sessions fresh urgency while presenting an obvious target for prospective populist anger. Liberal pundits would have people direct populist anger at the corporations who are momentarily expected to flood the airwaves with brainwashing propaganda.
E. J. Dionne is a representative specimen. His latest column calls on Democrats to wage rhetorical war on corporate lobbyists and a "fake populism" that might be described as Teapublican. This "fake populism" focuses traditionally populist anti-"elite" hostility on the government instead of what Dionne deems its proper target, Wall Street. He admits, however, that the Obama administration has handicapped itself as a populist force through its close relationship with the big bailed-out banks. "If average voters came to see government primarily as an instrument of the banks, why should they believe that the same government could help them on matters of health care and employment?" Dionne asks.
Right now the Democrats are, to some extent, victims of circumstance. As the governing party, they have to face the implications of the "too big to fail" principle. Obama isn't willing to take the risk of the banks taking much of the rest of the American economy down with them, were they to fail as some say they should. But what's good for the banks, it seems, is a "jobless recovery" that leads American workers to assume that the government regards them as expendable in a way that the banks are not. In brute economic terms, that's exactly so, but Americans didn't elect Obama or put Democrats in control of Congress in order to be governed by economists. Understandably, many feel betrayed, but their resort to Republicans as their salvation is inexplicable apart from the panic the radio talkers and Republican extremists incited over health-care reform. Can Americans, the Tea Partiers especially, believe that Republicans in power would be less solicitous toward banks than Democrats?
Let's remember, of course, that many of the reactionary populists in the Tea Party movement believe that government, not the banks, is to blame for the economic crisis. Many espouse classic voodoo economics, believing that recovery and jobs would appear almost immediately upon the reduction of corporate taxes. To the extent that they do blame banks, and oppose bailouts on principle, they take a "let justice be done though the heavens fall" attitude, apparently caring little about collateral damage so long as the Market's supposed will be done. Their idea of populism is to let the Market do its benevolent work, rewarding the industrious and punishing the lazy, without the obstructions created by special privileges and crony capitalism, which they now identify with Democratic rule. They think the way to do away with crony capitalism is to minimize government so that it has no power to create privileges that warp the market. But the tendency of capitalism is toward crony capitalism because it's the tendency of people to hold on to their advantages by whatever means necessary. In a political vacuum capitalists will create crony governments to turn once-earned victories into indefinite privileges. The only check against the tendency to crony capitalism and crony government is to have a government that's not beholden to capital, with powers independent of the market -- exactly the sort of government that Tea Partiers have been taught to fear. Some of these people are so far gone in ideology that I doubt whether any populist stylings by Democrats can reach them. Supply-side economics are irreconcilable with traditional populism. Supply-siders embrace their dependence on the money power, while the populists of a century ago resented it with their every breath.
What a populist approach might accomplish is to reverse the demoralization of recent Democratic voters. Disappointment with Democratic performance is expected to keep many Obama voters from 2008 at home in this election cycle unless the Democrats can terrify them with the prospect of Republican revenge -- or someone else taps into their progressive aspirations as well as their populist anger. As the governing party, the Democratic party is compromised as a populist vessel. If a truly populist mood exists, who can harness it?
For more than a century "populist" has been a slippery political term. There's something slightly unsavory about it to the extent that populism typically divides the nation between "the people" or "real Americans" and those elites, "special interests," etc. who are somehow less American than the rest. Populism is arguably inherently divisive and exclusionary to the extent that it depends on identifying an enemy in our midst. In more benign terms, it might be defined essentially as hostility to special privileges rather than "special interests," but too often reactionary populists simplistically equate anti-discriminatory policies with special privileges in order to inflame jealousy against minorities on the part of the multitude who feel that they've never been given a break by anybody. At its worst, populism is akin to conspiracy theory when it presumes that the country can be saved merely by eliminating some simply-identified evil element. It's tempting to politicians who assume, with some reason, that Americans vote according to their fears, resentments and plain hatreds. But I don't think the country's problems are going to be solved just by someone figuring out the right people for Americans to fear and hate. We need more comprehensive reform than a purge would permit, and we're going to need as many people on board as possible instead of throwing as many as we can under the bus. Barack Obama became President in part by promising that "the politics of the past" would come to an end on his watch. Whether he means to fulfill that promise or not, someone should -- but populism isn't the way to go unless it can unite the American people across class, ideology and all other lines.