In the new New Yorker (the 85th anniversary issue), Financial Page writer James Surowiecki contemplates what looks like an incoherent "populist" movement in the country. "The people may have spoken," he writes, "It's just not clear that they're making any sense." He takes as a sign of incoherence "populist" opposition to the auto industry bailouts. These saved jobs, he claims, and were much tougher on executives and stockholders than the bank bailouts, but "populists" hated them just as much. His perception of incoherence is shaped by his own expectations of what coherent thought should look like. He thinks the market failures of 2008 should have resulted in wider popular support for government intervention in the economy, but "the percentage of Americans who think government is trying to do too much is higher than it's been since the late nineties." Finally, Surowiecki thinks that "populists" should support stimulus spending, since he feels certain it will create jobs. Instead, "angry voters aren't that nuanced in their thinking; they want the government to tighten its belt and fight unemployment at the same time." But if any of today's "populists" are supply-siders, that wouldn't look incoherent, since they'd say that government could best fight unemployment by cutting taxes and spending. That begs the question of whether a supply-sider can ever be an actual populist, since supply-siders are trained to identify with the interests of their employers in a way many of the 1890s Populists might find contemptible. In turn, however, that begs the question looming over any discussion of populism: what is it, really?
Surowiecki notes one phenomenon that throws everyone's populist credentials into question. "Both history and theory suggest that tough economic times make people less interested in sharing burdens, not more," he writes, "One recent study found that people who had been treated unfairly became more selfish. It's hard to pass reform programs that depend on a sense of solidarity ... when voters are trying desperately to protect what they already have."
It seems to me that some sense of solidarity, however limited by prejudice or other factors, is an essential element of any political phenomena we want to describe as "populist." Perhaps Tea Party populism is an exceptional phenomenon, but I wouldn't expect a collective movement founded on the premise of "leave me alone" to last much longer than it already has. As for Surowiecki's historical analysis, my hunch is that much depends on how tough economic times actually are. In the 1930s, after all, times were so tough that a critical mass of Americans recognized their stake in an interventionist government and endorsed the New Deal. If Surowiecki describes the current mood correctly, that only means that times haven't gotten that tough yet (not that we should wish them worse). As for the apparent incoherence of modern quasi-populism, that may reflect a confusion over its proper target. Historical populism had it out for some sort of ruling class, but Americans today seem baffled by the spectacle of a ruling class seemingly divided against itself, as cultural "elites" battle entrepreneurial conservatives for dominance. Twenty-first century populism might start making more sense if it occured to today's would-be populists that one ruling-class faction or the other winning the political or cultural war won't necessarily mean that they will win, too. But if some of them are thinking that way already, that might explain Surowiecki's confused response to the apparent confusion among the rank and file.