The Left's Unpopular Populism

Elizabeth Warren and her Democratic allies should not fool themselves into thinking that Americans who are angry at elites and corporations also favor wealth redistribution.

Michael Dwyer/AP

The debate between Democrats who want to play up populist themes (let’s call them the Elizabeth Warren camp) and those who favor centrist ones (the Hillary Clinton crowd) ignores a major division among the various themes that carry the populist label. The difference is crucial because, as we will see shortly, the data show that some populist ideas are much less popular than others.

Populism usually refers to the idea that power should rest in the hands of the little guy, and not in the government or some elite. Public-opinion polls show that this basic form of populism has wide appeal. One of every two Americans believes that most politicians are corrupt (51 percent, according to a 2013 poll of national voters); 76 percent that special interests wield too much power; and 88 percent that big money has too much sway. Very low on people’s “trust” lists are all those perceived as powerful, including not just the government but also banks and corporations and labor unions. This kind of populism appeals to both those on the left, such as the Occupy Wall Street folks, and to Tea Partiers. (Polls show that, at least for a while, at least one in 10 Americans favored both!) I call this popular populism.

Much of the appeal is lost—that is, populism becomes much less popular—once leftist themes join the mix. There is little support for policies that look like wealth transfers, taking from the rich and giving to poor, reducing inequality, or making sacrifices for the common good. Large segments of the right and center view these policies as taking from “us” and giving to “them.” That’s why Social Security is so popular, while welfare is not. It’s the reason Medicare is very popular and Medicaid is much less so.

Opinions about what the top problems facing the nation are differ somewhat from poll to poll and over time. However, in one poll after another, popular populism concerns rank much higher than leftist ones. Thus a January 2014 poll found that dissatisfaction with the government, politicians, and poor leadership ranked as the main concerns, with the economy in general as the second. Only 4 percent of respondents ranked poverty, hunger, and homelessness as top concerns, just one percentage point higher than the very unpopular foreign aid. Even among Democrats, dissatisfaction with government ranked three times higher than the rich-poor gap (6 percent).

This is one reason why Obamacare remains unpopular. Its defenders claim that once people understand what is actually involved, they view the ACA quite favorably. These defenders note that people like the fact that they can no longer be denied insurance based on prior conditions and that they can keep their children on their health insurance until age 26. But the reason these parts are popular on their own is that they do not involve wealth transfers, but rather “payoffs” for everyone. Even after they understand the bill, a large majority of Americans continue to disapprove of being forced to carry insurance or pay fines in order to finance coverage for the poor, whom the public views as including mainly minorities. Some phrasing glosses over the difference. When Elizabeth Warren talks about fighting for the little guy she can be talking either kind of populism, but the moment overcoming inequality is added to mix, it’s game over. The proportion of Americans who ranked abuse of power and corruption as their top concern in the January 2014 poll was six times higher than those concerned with the gap between the rich and the poor—which only 4 percent ranked as their top concern. Warren’s rhetoric smacks of equality of results rather than opportunity, which many Americans—including many who are anti-elite—consider un-American.

All of this puts the liberal wing of the Democratic Party in a tough spot. If it goes with left-wing populism, it will continue to mobilize mainly its own base and leave behind most Americans, including the white male workers, who one would expect to vote Democrat on the basis of their economic status. If it sticks to popular populism, however, that same base may well feel that its favorite causes are being ignored.

Unless this conflict within the populist camp is resolved in favor of popular populism, one should expect that a centrist candidate will win the Democratic nomination. If a left-wing Democrat beats the odds and wins the party’s nod, though, it is sure to help a Republican be elected.