On the Atlantic website Amitai Etzioni writes that "the liberal narrative is not working." As a liberal, Etzioni finds this worrisome. He's under the impression that the "liberal narrative" is "government is good" or "government is not the devil." Too many people are frustrated by government dysfunction and genuine waste for such a narrative to be compelling. As a result, more people identify as "conservative" than "liberal," regardless of how they vote. Etzioni worries that you can't make a "government is good" argument without appearing to look naively uncritical about government's problems. Even if many voters remain "operational liberals" who support liberal policies without identifying as "liberal," elections force them to make blanket endorsements of "liberalism," at which many seem to balk. The solution, as Etzioni isn't the first to propose, is to go populist. For his purposes, going populist means attacking "special interests," by which he presumably means mainly "big business." He recommends, however, that liberal populists acknowledge that some special interests (he doesn't specify) have "liberal feathers."
Two problems arise. First, many liberals will feel uncomfortable attacking "special interests." They tend to think that everybody is special and no one is. Some may wonder who gets to define anyone else as a special interest. Many probably have been called "special interests" themselves. The adversarial imperative of populism doesn't go well with liberals' all-inclusive impulses. Second, populism is volatile and may only grow more effective the more concentrated, i.e. the more exclusive it gets. The Occupy movement didn't go far trying to pit 99% against 1% because the 99% had little coherent identity. The danger of populism is the temptation to declare anyone whose interests aren't mine or those of my group a "special interest," which follows from the urge to see oneself as the authentic American or authentic human being, or the one who doesn't need to change. Populism might be seen as a poor substitute for Marxism, or a refuge for those embarrassed by Marxism or afraid of its implications. You needn't endorse Marxism to recognize that it brings a little more clarity to the issue by rejecting the vague, volatile rhetoric of "special interests" in favor of class struggle. Of course, Americans are probably more uncomfortable with the rhetoric of class struggle than they are with praise of government, but a little background Marxism might inform whatever populist campaign Etzioni wants liberals to launch, just to make sure that not just any old group of people is scapegoated as the "special interest" to be tamed. Leave that approach to the Tea Party.