Wednesday, December 18, 2013

On Discussions of the Democrats and Populism

Typically the readers of this blog encounter a number of posts about the prospects of a conservative populism. A recent Noam Scheiber piece at The New Republic, however, got me thinking about where the idea of a progressive populism is at the moment. Scheiber's piece is an insightful read on what populism offers for the Democratic party at the moment. I am not as sanguine about the prospects for a leftist populism as Scheiber is, for reasons I will outline.

Scheiber structures his argument by contrasting the economic populism of Bill de Blasio and Elizabeth Warren with so-called politically "neutral" positions from advocacy groups like Third Way. Visiting their website, one notes that they describe themselves by noting that, "Third Way represents Americans in the “vital center” — those who believe in pragmatic solutions and principled compromise, but who too often are ignored in Washington." Third Way's recent decision to put economic populism on blast, then, disturbs Scheiber, who assumes that there is more common cause between Third Way and economic populists than daylight. Indeed, he even notes that Third Way's co-founder Matt Bennett, is willing to admit as much in a piece by Dave Weigel. What seemingly confounds Scheiber is why, exactly, Third Way would create such a kerfluffle when they have so much common cause with the policy agenda of the economic populists. Weigel suggests in his piece that the explanation for the kerfluffle is related mostly to the ability of a certain set of financial interests to maintain a delicate balancing act between maintaining political influence amongst the politically strong Democrats while at the same time being able to oppose policies that would necessitate higher taxation and more corporate regulation, like entitlement expansion.

Scheiber goes on to argue that opposition to populism might be best explained by the way that populist rhetorical and political strategies induce action where playing the insiders' game results in less change. As he says, "when you actually try to reform the status quo, any approach that relies on courting insiders (lobbyists and businessman, often regulators and Washington think tankers) rather than ginning up public support typically stalls out before long." He notes that because of the power accumulated by special interests, only appealing to "the people" can offer a way to break up the regulatory and legislative gridlock in Washington. Scheiber's warrant for this claim is not only recent empirical data from the legislative record, but also the assertion that the old split between producerism (late 19th century style populism as represented in groups like The People's Party) and progressivism (think voting rights plus temperance plus labor rights plus Protestant ethos plus regulation) is vanishing, if not vanished. For Scheiber, the rise of the 1 percent as a political and economic class has played the role eliminating the classic schism between producerists and progressives.

I appreciate Scheiber's piece but I think he has fallen into the trap of equating a rise in economic inequality with an absolutely corresponding rise in consciousness about the given political situation. Before we had the 1 percent (and Occupy Wall Street, natch) there was the Tea Party, an economic populism that is not entirely different. Scheiber's view of an economic populist like Elizabeth Warren is that she endorses a political platform that plays well: punishment for big banks, defense of entitlements, and financial regulations. Research actually suggests that all of these talking points merge nicely with the beliefs of those who are Tea Partiers (for more see this very helpful book by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson). The Tea Party emerged out of real and palpable anger about how big banks escaped from 2008 almost scot free, many Tea Partiers were defensive about entitlements  (notably, their entitlements not necessarily the expansion of them to others), and wanted to combat the special interests that had let the financial sector run free. If we learned anything from the 2010 midterm, it was that the feeling of anger and frustration was itself populist, even if it could be channeled and pushed towards political interests which might do relatively less to address these sentiments through policy proposals.

Historically, one might point out that the producerist/progressivist split was never actually eradicated. Instead, a combination of economic prosperity following the second world war and its convergence with a regime of robust statism combined to paper over what might have otherwise been antagonistic tensions between producerists and populists. Of course, after a while rising economic prosperity actually exposed potential schisms between the two groups, most notably because of the ways in which increased affluence threatened to replace Protestant morality with crude consumerism. This schism, among others, was played to by conservatives who launched their first populist campaigns of the 20th century under the sign of individual freedom, which allowed them to stitch together business interests that disagreed with the existing strength of the regulatory state and more properly "populist" elements of the nation struggling to reconcile their existence with the pace of innovation, change, and transformation in the country.

Scheiber's claim that unified resentment for the 1 percent can drive Democratic populism seems overly rosy. Invoking "the people" never occurs for just one political side: claims for "the people" are made on a complicated terrain where the rhetorical power of populism is always subject to capture and use that evades the intent and scope of the claims of those who initially deploy it. While it is appealing to imagine that claims against the economic elite intuitively warrant a move to support Democratic politicians, this is not a given for several reasons. First, previous and current Democratic administrations, from Clinton to Obama, have not shown the willingness to be appropriately harsh and antagonistic to business interests to demonstrate that they place the interests of "the people" over established political "facts" in Washington. Second, "the people" functions as a sign of collectivism but in America collectivism runs into the competing grammar of American individualism. Even if collectivism sometimes wins out to suppress the individualistic elements in American identity, this is most often true in matters of foreign policy not economic matters where a fevered imaginary stoked by modern-day Horatio Algers well versed in the work of Ayn Rand seems fit to run free. Third, the argument ad populum operates as a rhetoric that draws on the position of "the people" as fundamentally outside the position of power in order to establish its claim. Specifically, "the people" are enunciated just as much if not more so as positioned against the government rather than only corporate interests. To the extend that these two blend, all the better for conservative forces. Finally, with a Democratic firmly ensconced in their second term in the White House, it is unclear that a populist rhetoric will intuitively work for rather than against the Democratic Party, as the 2010 work of the Tea Party shows.

Scheiber is right that the Democratic Party should focus on putting together a meaningful policy agenda based on fighting back against corporate common sense in the federal government. However, attaching this effort in advance to the figure of "the people" risks more harm than good, as the public sphere will get caught up in debating who "the people" really are and that fight will be fought on terrain friendly to conservative interests. Better to craft a policy agenda that actually speaks to a broad swatch of interests gathered along shared points of interests than to place the populist cart before the horse.

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