Matt Miller has an interesting take on John Edwards and populism:

Consider John Edwards, who the press and Republicans have cast as the heartthrob of the resurgent "left". The centrepiece of Mr Edwards' agenda is a call for universal health coverage. It sounds radical to American ears, perhaps. But Margaret Thatcher would have been chased from office in the UK if she had proposed a health plan as radically conservative as Mr Edwards' - under which private doctors would supply the medicine, and years would still pass with millions of Americans uncovered.

Mr Edwards wants to lift the minimum wage substantially, and to boost wage subsidies for low-income work besides. But the outer limits of Mr Edwards' ambition would leave low income work less generously compensated than the minimum wage and subsidy blend enacted by Britain's New Labourites Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - arrangements Conservative party leader David Cameron says suit him just fine. [...]

I could go on, but you get the point. The fact that a Thatcher-Cameron-Buffet agenda can be hyped as "populist" says more about propaganda success and media norms than anything else. Over three decades, America's conservative movement has so deftly shifted the boundaries of debate to the right that even modest adjustments to the market system can be cast as the second coming of Marx without anyone blushing. Today's phony populist fears also remind us that the real problem with the media is not ideology but stenography. If official sources call something "populist" often enough, it is.



This is, in many ways, music to my ears. That said, I do think one of the main things this illustrates is another point entirely -- the extent to which populism is a style rather than an ideology. John Edwards doesn't just talk about his policies as good policies, he talks about wresting control over the government from entrenched economic elites and deploying its power on behalf of ordinary people. That is populism and it's different from what a UK Conservative can or would say. Or, rather, a UK Conservative can adopt a populist style or pose, but would need to change the target around to make it something like wresting power from arrogant bureaucrats or public sector unions.

Populism is a real thing, and a quite analytically useful category, but it's not a kind of policy agenda, it's a kind of way of talking about policy.

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