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.

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

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