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Winning the partisan war: Populism and the parties

Published: April 23, 2010
Section: Opinions

Early polling suggests that the Democrats are on shaky ground come this November.  A reason for this is that this party is losing what I would like to call the populism war.

A recurrent theme in American politics on both sides of the political spectrum is populism.  However, the left and right diverge in regards to the targets of this sentiment.

Liberals stand up for people against the avaricious excesses of corporations and big business.  They do not wish to overthrow or severely impinge upon the vitality of capitalism and free markets.  However, they recognize the need for equity and fairness in a system in which self-interested actors may look out for themselves at the expense of others less fortunate.  Often, additional rules and regulations are the means by which the left achieves these goals.

Conservative populists, in contrast, fight against what they perceive as a loss of control over their lives.  In times of great economic stress, they seek to preserve whatever they have left, including, perhaps most importantly, the freedom to make their own decisions.  They become infuriated by the thought of any individual or entity, whether it is a government agency or a corporation, impeding upon this core existential function.

A recent trend, it seems to me, is that the right’s narrative has been able to drown out that of the left.  The Tea Party movement, which embodies conservative populism, has, with the assistance of a conflict-driven sensationalist news media, garnered far more attention and exposure than its liberal counterpart.

Part of this is due to the fact that the Tea Partiers are a novelty.  Liberal populism, and its various manifestations, is a relatively familiar sight that harkens back, in its modern form, to the New Left movement of the late 1960s and 70s.  Conversely, grassroots organizing and activism is not generally associated with a party that identifies primarily with the wealthy and well connected, at least until now.

But I think the real reason why this is the case is because, quite simply, President Obama and the Democrats in Congress are not acting like real populists.  Their rhetoric may suggest that they are, but their actions and policies prove otherwise.  This, in turn, decreases the enthusiasm and vitality of their base, which has become less willing to fight and campaign for their political representatives.

Indeed, how can the Democrats be true populists when their health care reform law forces millions of additional people into the insurance market?  When their financial regulation and cap and trade bills have been watered down significantly by lobbyists and special interests?  When President Obama permits new offshore drilling, which provides a massive subsidy for oil companies?  When investment banks and hedge funds are posting record profits, in large part due to government assistance, while there is nearly 10 percent unemployment?

There are obviously opposing cases for each of these actions and facts.  Obama does not desire radical change, he wants to support existing institutions, he is a pragmatic consensus-builder, political structures and rules prevent him from veering too far to the left, etc.

What I am suggesting though is that these policies serve to erode the passion of the populist left.  Although the members of this group will vote for the Democrats, they may not donate as much, or volunteer on their campaigns, or attend their rallies.  And, without an engaged and energetic base, Democrats will suffer at the polls this November.

This has created a vacuum of activism, which I believe the Tea Party movement has filled.  As a result, we see old white men clad in garments that were fashionable in 1773 holding signs saying, “Don’t Tread On Me” very often on TV.  However, individuals with posters bearing slogans like “Change We Can Believe In” are now a rare sight.

Moderation can be considered a virtue, but it is not always the ideal strategy for liberals in Congress and the White House.  If these political actors can clearly articulate a vision supporting the working class, with policies visibly reflecting it, then perhaps they can regain ground with their core of support.  Otherwise, they will linger in the murky center, resulting in few truly active partisans and advocates on either side of the political spectrum who will go out of their way to spread their message, or lack thereof.  In short, the Democrats must do more to win the populism war.