So now it’s official. The New York Times has announced that “economic populism” is the new flavor in politics, and Democrats are lapping it up. Don’t we wish. We have mixed feelings, because the “populist” story has a perennial quality. It’s the flower that blooms in the springtime of presidential election cycles, then shrivels suddenly. The country has arrived at an important political moment–possibly a watershed–but this moment does not yet belong to the people.
In Washington parlance, the historic meaning of populism has been corrupted and trivialized as a sentimental oddity. The word is now invoked by the press and campaign operatives to say, Hey, the politicians are talking like they might actually do something for the folks. How quaint. In a political system accustomed to serving powerful interests, putting people first has become a man-bites-dog news story.
The original populism, the agrarian revolt of the late nineteenth century, was creative and robustly defiant of entrenched power. Oppressed farmers, humble people in the bleakest circumstances, forged their own politics and audaciously took on Washington and Wall Street (read Lawrence Goodwyn’s The Populist Moment to learn the full, amazing saga of this bottom-up rebellion). The populists failed in the end to acquire governing power, but their agenda ultimately changed the nation. It was rich in big ideas about how to use government to protect society from the depredations of concentrated wealth and corporate power. Populists created an intellectual seedbed that influenced the next fifty years of progressive reform, climaxing in the New Deal.
This is what’s missing from the Democrats’ “new” populism–the big ideas for fundamental change, the hardheaded analysis that confronts national decline in all its ugly manifestations. We know some Democrats yearn to begin this kind of broad-gauged assault on the status quo, and the new concern in party circles about income and wealth inequality is encouraging. But the party, and most presidential candidates, are still too shy on the big questions. Where is the party’s comprehensive critique of taxation–not just the wildly reactionary rate structure but the corrupted federal tax code, which allows the wealthiest players to decide for themselves how much tax they will pay (see David Cay Johnston’s devastating reports in the New York Times and Perfectly Legal, his shocking book)? What do Democratic candidates have to say about how to redeem government as a trustworthy agent for the general welfare and an equitable society? The government’s loss of integrity and effectiveness is growing, and citizens know the degradation did not originate with George W. Bush. To restore reliable government, a reforming party will have to cut corporate power down to a size society can tolerate.
How would the next Democratic President set out to redeem a dysfunctional regulatory system? It is not enough to say he or she would appoint better people and tell them to obey the law. Regulatory agencies people once trusted, like the Food and Drug Administration, have been captured by the industries they are supposed to regulate.
The dismantling of financial regulation, likewise, did not begin with Bush I or II or even Ronald Reagan. It began in the late 1970s, when Democrats were in power. Are the Dems prepared to address their big mistakes and begin the hard task of re-regulating the banking and financial systems to protect the people from the familiar spectacles of outrageous gouging and unpunished crimes of fraud?
If our nation is at a great turning point, an opening for momentous reforms, a party that seeks to win the governing majority cannot duck on any of these matters. We understand the hesitations; we are familiar with the obstacles. But to put it plainly, you cannot run on “populist” politics and count on robber barons to finance your campaigns. It might fool people for a season or two, but when nothing changes, they will punish the culprits.
Does a populist temperament still dwell in the American people–the fighting spirit to reclaim citizenship and self-government? We are sure it does, though these aspirations are buried under cultural distractions and elite propaganda. The Nation will do its best to revive and encourage the democratic ethos, because it is only the people who have the power to force change on political institutions, including the Democratic Party. Forget the words and slogans. Populism cannot be authentic unless it is driven by and for the people.