Oh No, Populism!

Oh No, Populism!


There is a whiff of populism in the air and so, not surprisingly, some liberals are scared. Over at The New Republic, Walter Shapiro has written a piece warning that the real threat to the Obama administration may come not from Republicans on the hard right but from "a corrosive anti-establishment rage" that’s spinning out of control. Shapiro frets over a poll in late February that revealed (gasp!) that "only 30 percent" of Americans believe "most successful people on Wall Street deserve to make the kind of money they earn." If the anger doesn’t die down, the article suggests, "pitchfork-wielding voters" will block future bank bailouts and bring the Obama administration to its knees.

This is, to put it plainly, nonsense. It’s certainly true that populist rage against elites in America has sometimes taken ugly forms (see, for example, Father Coughlin, or the variety of examples Richard Hofstadter documents in The Age of Reform). But, as E.J. Dionne notes here, leaning on the fine historian Michael Kazin, disgust and anger at unrestrained greed has also been channeled into constructive movements that have exposed corruption and enhanced the "common welfare."

For all the "pitchfork-wielding voters" supposedly out there, Obama remains immensely popular. His bank bailout plan may not be, but that’s not because voters have become too enraged to think – it’s because they are justifiably worried money may be tossed at institutions that don’t deserve it, with taxpayers left to pick up the tab. This purportedly irrational fear is shared by, among others, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who has described the administration’s latest bank rescue plan as a "heads-you-win, tails-we-lose proposition" for investors – one that will not, in his view, solve the credit crisis. If Krugman is right, and the plan doesn’t change, there will indeed be plenty of populist rage at the Obama administration, but the administration will have only itself to blame.

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