Left-Populism or Something Like It

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Will Wilkinson:

Last, what is populism anyway? I think of a politics that pictures the economy as a huge zero-sum game, sets social and economic classes against each other, and promises “the people” free stuff at the expense of some other, usually richer, people. Ezra adduces evidence from the recent Pew Political Typology that shows increased support for a bigger, more domestically activist government. I certainly don’t dispute it. But what does that have to do with populism, exactly? Is this shift in opinion Ezra identifies motivated by “people vs. the powerful,” “two America’s” stuff? Where’s the evidence of that? And, more to the point, if there is any evidence of it, where’s the evidence that it is driven largely by economic anxiety?

Broadly understood, I take the term “populism” to refer to any politics that champions issues that have a broad base of popular support but receive short shrift from the political elite. This explains why you can have left-populists and right-populists, populists who demand higher welfare spending (see Long, Huey) and populists who champion welfare reform (see every successful GOP politician from Nixon to Gingrich), and so and so forth. More narrowly, though, in the case of the new left-populism I was discussing in my Atlantic mini-essay, I take it to describe a politics that pictures, not the economy in general, but the welfare state specifically as a zero-sum game (a not-entirely-accurate assessment of how taxing and spending works, but one that isn’t all that wide of the mark), and that argues either that the well-off should be taxed at higher rates or that wealthy interests should receive less government money than at present, with the goal in each case being to distribute federal largesse across a broader portion of the population, whether through spending on health care or education or what-have-you.

I think it’s very hard to argue that this latter sort of politics doesn’t command more support today than it did a decade ago – so difficult, in fact, that Will doesn’t bother to make that argument, and instead suggests that rising support for an expanded welfare state doesn’t count as “populism” because it doesn’t come wrapped in “two America’s” or “people vs. the powerful” rhetoric. In defense of my locution, I would note that it was precisely this sort of rhetoric of “people vs. the powerful” that launched much of the Democratic class of ’06 into power; I would note, too, that I specifically described the new redistributionism as a new-model populism, to distinguish it from the more-explicitly class-warriorish appeals of leftisms gone by. But I’m not all that invested in the term, so if Will admits that the country has moved steadily left on tax-and-transfer issues since the ’94 GOP landslide, then I’ll declare victory and accept whatever terminology he prefers.

This leaves us with the question of why this leftward shift has happened, and whether it’s likely to continue. Will focuses most of his criticism on my suggestion (which isn't exactly unique to me) that rising economic anxiety, in particular, has something to do with the trend toward statism. I agree that “anxiety” is a somewhat nebulous term, and worth unpacking a little bit. As he says, Americans tell pollsters that they're pretty satisfied with their lives overall, and pretty optimistic going forward; on the other hand, as he admits, at the moment Americans are extremely fretful (on might even say "anxious") both about their personal finances and the economy as a whole. Will describes these anxieties as cyclical rather than systematic, which is possible, but it seems at the very least worthy of note that of late, Americans have persistently reported themselves dissatisfied with the economy even during a period of strong economic growth (to the consternation of many conservative pundits), which suggests that something besides the business cycle may be at work in the current anxious mood.

One explanation for this dysjunction, an explanation that Will gestures at, is the general miasma of pessimism associated with the unhappy presidency of George W. Bush; as perceptions of the economy have taken on an increasingly partisan tint, it may be that economic anxiety is shaped more by political impressions than by actual-existing economic conditions. However, I think it's at the very least worth considering an alternative explanation, which is that Americans are at once fairly happy with their everyday finances, increasingly worried about their ability to handle big-ticket expenses like health care and retirement, and (mildly) perturbed by the growth of income inequality. This would explain the seeming paradox of a country where most people report being pretty happy from day to day and year and year, yet pluralities express dissatisfaction with the overall economic picture and the public as a whole seems to be growing steadily more sympathetic to an activist government.

As for whether this latter trend is likely to continue, well, I offered two reasons to think so in my piece – the continued pressure of outsourcing, which seems at the very unlikely to be less of an issue over the next two decades than it has been in the last two election cycles; and the continued atomization of American family life (family income volatility is the one place the Hacker thesis seems to hold some water, and single people - and particularly single women - are more likely to support redistributionist policies than are married couples). They are just that: Reasons to think this may be the case, not dispositive proof that it will be the case. Maybe the economy will start expanding the way it did during the tech bubble, swamping anxieties about outsourcing, pensions and health care costs in a tide of easy money; maybe Hispanic marriage rates and out-of-wedlock birth rates will converge with those of whites, and the American family will look stronger in twenty years than it does today; maybe a brilliant political talent will emerge to persuade Americans that rising health care costs should be accepted uncomplainingly as the price we pay for innovation, rather than cited as a reason for greater government involvement in the health care sector. But at the moment, I'm betting otherwise.

Will also makes the point that various anxiety-inducing trends have been at work since at least the 1970s, and demands to know “why the anxieties of deindustrialization fell so far from delivering a populist politics.” But of course the whole secret of the GOP’s success over the last thirty years is precisely that it did deliver a populist politics, using grass-roots resentments to engineer a revolt against the liberal elites who ran things from the 1930s till the 1970s. (I’m broad-brushing here, obviously.) Insofar as the Republican Revolution succeeded politically over the last few decades, it did so by channeling the anxieties of deindustrialization into support for tax cuts, deregulation, reforming welfare and ending affirmative action, by telling middle-class Americans that they would be less economically-anxious if the government let them keep more of their own money, stopped micro-managing the economy, and channeled fewer federal dollars (and jobs) to the undeserving poor. (The infamous “white hands” ad may or may not have been racist, but it succeeded because it spoke to … the anxieties of deindustrialization!) And of course there were other, non-economic sources of public anxiety for a right-populism to seize on, rising crime (and the unresponsive elites who let it rise) chief among them.

All of which is to say that we live in the aftermath not of some smooth technocratic transition from an industrial to an information economy, but of a right-populist revolt against the Great Society consensus, one that delivered (among other things) a dramatically lower federal tax burden, a dramatically-revamped welfare system, a dramatically less-regulated private sector, and a much lower crime rate. I think that this revolt was largely a good thing - as I assume Will does as well, even if he doesn't want to label it "populism" - but I also recognize that its very success has made the federal government seem less of an enemy of middle class prosperity than was the case thirty years ago, and more of a potential friend to middle-income families. And this, in turn, has pushed the electorate to the left of where it stood in 1980, a swing that has prevented the GOP from implementing some of its favored reforms (see, for instance, the wall the ’94 Revolutionaries ran into in their war on entitlements, and the defeat of Bush's push for Social Security reform), and that now offers the Democrats a fresh opportunity to expand the welfare state.

As for whether they’ll seize this opportunity - well, Will also writes:

There are also ups and downs and quick reversals, if not cycles, in political opinion. As Ross mentions in his article, just a year or so ago, there were still books rolling off the presses trying to explain why the Democrats are perpetual losers. Are Republicans wizards at “framing”? Are they more fluent in the visceral emotional language of politics? Have they gerrymandered themselves permanent majorities, destroying any chance of a real American democracy? I don’t believe it is even minimally reasonable to now think the tide of public opinion has semi-permanently turned. What I think it is safe to say is that the incompetence, corruption, and disastrously failed war delivered by years of Republican rule have powerfully soured many Americans on policies they identify, rightly or wrongly, with conservatives. Anyone making projections further out than the next election is just guessing, and usually wishfully. A big majority opinion seemingly in favor of a big policy change — in favor of social security privatization or nationalized health care, for example — can collapse in a matter of months in the face of well-coordinated negative political and media campaigns.

I would second Ezra's point that the leftward trend on size-of-government issues is a decade old and thus can't be plausibly chalked to Bush fatigue, but I think Will's broader point, about the limits of prognostication, is obviously well-taken. Indeed, I said as much in my piece, concluding that the political future I’d sketched out was a possibility rather than an inevitability, and that the mere fact that trends exist that are favorable to left-populists (or whatever we want to call them) doesn’t mean that the left-populists will succeed in seizing their moment. And certainly Will's right that any "big policy change" can be derailed by savvy and persistent opposition, whatever the polls say on the issue. However, I think it's telling that of the two potential "big changes" Will cites, only the leftward one - health care reform - actually enjoys anything like a majority in its favor. Yes, if you phrase the poll questions right, you can persuade yourself that Social Security privatization is popular and Bush just bungled the sales pitch. But overall it seems pretty clear that the President's plan for private accounts ran into the wind of public opinion, whereas an attempt by a Democratic majority to push the government leftward on health policy would have at the very least a slight breeze at its back. This doesn't mean that such a push would succeed, but it does tell us something about where the country is today, and the prospects for Democratic success over the next few election cycles and beyond.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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