Democrats Pitch a Kinder, Gentler Populism

With the unveiling of the party’s new agenda, the rhetorical battle for the allegiance of the middle classes has begun.

Elizabeth Warren walks through the crowd after unveiling the Democratic party's "A Better Deal" for working Americans with members of the party leadership in Berryville, Virginia, July 24, 2017.  (James Lawler Duggan / Reuters)

Last week was an intriguing one for fans of economic populism. Maybe not a White-House-staffers-threatening-to-sic-the-FBI-on-each-other level of intriguing. But intriguing nonetheless for anyone wondering how the U.S. landed itself in this topsy-turvy political freakshow.

On Monday, Democratic lawmakers unleashed upon the nation their “Better Deal,” the latest move in the party’s scramble to win back the love of the white working-class. As the accompanying web site grandly proclaims, “The Democratic Party’s mission is to help build an America in which working people know that somebody has their back.” Too many Americans, the site laments at length, feel like “the rules of the economy are rigged against them.”

The plan’s anodyne name—a response to Donald Trump’s dealmaker posturing—prompted much sniggering. Some people considered it an uninspired echo of FDR’s New Deal. Others grumped it was a rip-off of Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way” agenda. Twitter wags compared it to the slogan for Papa John’s. (“Better ingredients. Better Pizza.”)

As for the guts of the plan, many of its proposals carry the imprint of the Elizabeth Warren/Bernie Sanders wing: get tough on monopolies, boost the minimum wage to $15; invest $1 trillion in infrastructure; cut the cost of medications, college, and child care. Dems are also looking to equip left-behind Americans for today’s economy by giving tax credits to employers that set up retraining and apprenticeship programs.

As Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer summed it up in The New York Times: “First, we’re going to increase people’s pay. Second, we’re going to reduce their everyday expenses. And third, we’re going to provide workers with the tools they need for the 21st-century economy.”

This third prong in particular sounds eminently sensible, targeted, and forward-looking. It also seems about as likely to excite the masses as a plate of week-old avocado toast.

For understandable reasons, Democrats are eager to jump on the populist bandwagon. But “populism” is a slippery, squishy sort of term that can mean any number of things. “Republicans like Jack Kemp were called ‘populist’ if they appeared to care about someone other than the rich,” notes my former colleague John Judis, author of The Populist Explosion. “Putin is sometimes called a populist because he rides bare-chested on a horse. So the Democrats are free to use the term—meaning in their case that they are focusing now on the economic welfare of less well-to-do Americans rather than Goldman Sachs, transgender people, or illegal immigrants.”

Thomas Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies with the Brookings Institution and co-author of an upcoming book probing Trumpism, agrees: “Populism is a protean concept—used by politicians of all stripes to rally the forgotten people against the nefarious elites. Left wing/right wing, liberal-democratic/authoritarian, policy oriented/purely symbolic, racially inclusive/racist,” he told me. “Trump's populism is in each case of the latter type. Identify the enemy, romanticize the past, promise a return to a better and fairer life.”

With a Better Deal, Democrats are pitching a gentle, constructive, we-want-to-help-you-cope-with-modern-life brand of populism. Trump, by contrast, excels at the let-me-bring-back-the-good-times-by-punishing-the-bad-guys version. Trump’s populism is nativist, revanchist, and ultimately unachievable. (Please tell me no one still believes he’s going to revive the coal industry.) But in terms of raw, gut-level appeal, it kicks the snot out of what the Democrats are peddling.

Just look at Trump’s campaign-ish pep rally in Ohio last Tuesday. In between rants about immigrant invaders and Islamist terrorists, the president repeated his vow to restore the Mahoning Valley to its glory days when steel was king. All those big, beautiful manufacturing jobs are coming back, he swore. He even offered the crowd a bit of real estate advice: “Don’t sell your house. We’re going to get those values up.”

Well, heck, if Trump is going to do all that, why on earth would anyone be jazzed about retraining programs or additional schooling or apprenticeships? All that stuff requires scary change—and worse still, comes with the implicit judgment that one’s current way of life/thinking is somehow inferior. (Let us show you how to become “better”!) And, in the end, who knows if all that change will bring about better anything?

In many ways, the Better Deal is reminiscent of what Bill Clinton was selling in the 1990s. Anyone remember that scene in Primary Colors where Governor Stanton/Clinton is delivering some tough-love straight talk to a roomful of grumpy Granite Staters?

No politician can re-open this factory or bring back the shipyard jobs or make your union strong again. No politician can make it the way it was. Because we now live in a world without economic borders. … In that world, muscle-jobs go where muscle-labor is cheap, and that is not here. So to compete, you have to exercise a different muscle—the one between your ears … The whole country must go back to school. We have to get smarter, learn skills. And I promise this: I will work hard for you. I will think about you. I will fight to make education a lifetime thing in this country to give you the support you need to move up. But you have to do the heavy lifting your own selves.

Today’s Dems are similarly set on reassuring struggling Americans: We are so sorry you have felt ignored by us. From now on, we pledge to work our butts off to help you help yourself.

But Trump? Trump keeps right on telling folks to sit tight—Don’t sell that house yet!—and let him do the heavy lifting. Forget retraining. He’s going to get all those coal mines and steel plants humming again. How? By putting his boot on the neck of China, NAFTA, enviros, immigrant labor, liberal elites, etc. … Maybe even some transgender soldiers!

Is Trump spinning a cruel fantasy, scapegoating certain groups to fuel false hope in others? You betcha. But it’s such a soothing, satisfying bedtime story for many Americans that it’s almost irresistible.

Trump’s brilliance was in thinking—or at least talking—big about upending the system, says Judis. “The key to his campaign, and what made it populist in the tradition of the People's Party, Huey Long, Perot, was that he voiced demands that the prevailing leadership of both parties were unwilling to grant or even consider. Ditto Sanders.”

By contrast, says Judis, Schumer’s Times op-ed “used every cliché of the last 20 years. I don't disagree with anything they propose, but they are proposing incremental stuff that in some cases (worker retraining) has proven to be pretty useless.”

Of course, how you feel about this or that policy idea will depend heavily on your own political leanings. But, overall, the Democrats’ message is one of incremental, future-oriented change.

In the Age of Trumpsanity, where is the thrill in that?

“The Democrats’ Better Deal can’t compete at a rhetorical level with Trump's Make America Great Again,” says Mann. Rather, it “resembles past party efforts to identify a set of policies that address the underlying economic realities that would be a basis for governing.”

But that is not to suggest the move is without merit, insists Mann. “It’s a commendable effort to keep Democrats on the same page as they try to position themselves to take full advantage of a Democratic wave in 2018. The national campaign will be about Trump the autocrat, the kleptocrat, the phony populist, and the cravenly accommodating Republican Party. The Better Deal will be helpful in arming candidates with a positive vision and avoiding intraparty divisions in the midterm elections. Their rhetorical challenge is best dealt with via the right presidential candidate and campaign in 2020.”

Maybe they can come up with something a little more inspiring by then.

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