The New Democratic Populism
Everyone wants Virginia's Senator-elect Jim Webb to talk about Iraq, but the man The Weekly Standard recently called a "blood-and-soil conservative" wants to talk about something else: economic inequality. The day after he accepted George Allen's concession, Webb barely let his NPR interviewer get a word in edgewise before jumping in to correct the misperception that his bid for office was motivated solely by opposition to the war. "I decided to run because of my concern...with the economic breakdown that's happened in this country along class lines."
Class lines? Mr. Webb is a man who has railed against the "collectivist taming" of American culture by Marxists and has served in the Reagan Administration. So why is he talking like Eugene Debs? "There are huge income inequalities...that we haven't seen since the 1880s," he said on NPR. "And wages and salaries...are at an all-time low as a percentage of wealth."
As idiosyncratic as he is, Webb is not an anomaly. He's part of a broader trend that has been obscured by the fast-congealing conventional wisdom that the election results were driven chiefly by the ongoing disaster in Iraq. If you drill down a little into those results, it's clear that Iraq and Republican scandal can't account for all the Democratic victory. Consider the Democrats' success at the state level. The party picked up six governors, nine legislative chambers and more than 300 state legislative seats, none of which can plausibly be ascribed to discontent over Iraq.
As Webb suggests, the hidden story of the election was the appeal of economic populism in a country whose middle class is increasingly feeling the squeeze. Coast to coast, Democrats running for local and national office campaigned on raising the minimum wage, repealing welfare for Big Oil and opposing trade deals lacking protection for workers and the environment, and their message resonated with an electorate anxious about the economy. Half of all voters rated the economy not good or poor, and a full 69 percent said their family's economic situation had either gotten worse or stayed the same since the last election. Democrats won both these groups by wide margins.
Ironically, in the weeks leading up to the midterm election, the Republican Party stole a page from the Democrats' playbook and attempted to shift the focus toward the economy and away from the manifestly unpopular Iraq War. The thinking was that the years of relatively strong GDP growth coupled with relatively low unemployment would redound to the ruling party's benefit, perhaps canceling out the anger over Iraq and corruption. The GOP's strategy both worked and backfired. Voters did focus on the economy, but they didn't reward Republicans. Exit polls showed that 39 percent of voters rated the economy as "extremely important" (roughly the same percentage as those who said the same about Iraq and corruption), but Democrats won those voters by twenty points.
This shouldn't be surprising. Despite relatively strong growth, manageable inflation, high corporate profits and a bullish stock market, real wages continue to stagnate, productivity gains continue to be captured by the wealthiest 1 percent, income inequality has continued to get worse and, as Jacob Hacker argues persuasively in The Great Risk Shift, America's middle class finds itself living with far more risk and income volatility than it did a generation ago.
None of these trends are new, but over the past six years the problems have grown so noticeable that even the neoliberal economists who crafted the much-celebrated Clinton economic agenda have begun to focus on correcting the perversely inequitable distribution of the fruits of economic success. After years of reading the likes of David Sirota and Thomas Frank urging Democrats to embrace their inner populists, Dems finally started getting the message: Aside from opposition to the war, the Democrats focused on attacking subsidies to Big Oil, blasting the corruption endemic to a system in which corporate special interests call the shots and advocating for "fair trade" over the so-called "free trade" agreements that benefit capital over labor. Even the Democratic Leadership Council, the most outspoken opponent of economic populism, has begun to come around. In 1995 Roll Call reported that "DLC officials think that, if Clinton calls for a minimum-wage increase in the State of the Union...it could wreak the same political damage as his 1993 vow to veto any healthcare bill that did not provide universal coverage." By this election, the DLC was firmly behind an increase in the minimum wage.
In fact, the minimum wage just might have been Tuesday night's most underreported story. Not only has the Democratic Congress pledged to raise the minimum wage within the first 100 hours but in the six states that featured ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage above the national--Ohio, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado--every one passed. In Montana it took 73 percent of the vote, and in Missouri 76 percent. Consider that the much-publicized stem-cell-research initiative passed in Missouri by only a few percentage points. That means hundreds of thousands pulled the lever for an increased minimum wage and against funding for stem-cell research.