On Populism

Micha Ghertner notes media accounts of bigotry among the Tea Partiers. As I noted in that context, this phenomenon doesn’t strike me as unique to the Tea Party; rather, the practice of organizing around a common enemy is the hallmark of populism.

Thus, I expect contemporary conservative gatherings to attract a following from people motivated by animosity against ethnic minorities, religious minorities, sexual minorities, etc. Because these people have a justifiable fear that the prevalence of their world view is declining, they may well be among the most energized people at conservative gatherings. Similarly, I suspect that liberal gatherings attract Communists and people who regard riches as the sole capital offense.

I don’t think these dynamics to say much about conservatism or liberalism. But they do speak to the political “marketplace of ideas.”

Both liberals and conservatives can marshal principled reasons for their positions – well, “principled” by their own standards, anyway. Those principles speak to a certain segment of the electorate. And then we’re left with elections being driven by people who are not motivated by those principles. So politicians go around eating the local burritos and kissing the local babies and otherwise trying to appeal to people on some other-than-principled basis.

Among the strongest of these bases is appealing to people’s sense of grievance. During war every government beats the drums about the harms that the government’s opponents are inflicting on the public. Those rapacious Jews! Those dirty Japs! Those fanatical Islamists! Those cowardly conscientious objectors! It’s us vs. them!

A large component of the hippy movement involved a populist revolt against the war in Viet Nam. ("Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming; we're finally on our own...!") Nixon was able to flip the white South to the Republican camp by conveying the idea that Democrats were sacrificing their interests to the interests of blacks. I suspect that Carter, Reagan, Clinton, W. and Obama were able to win office in large part based on populist disenchantment with their predecessors, distinct from a positive statement about their own merits or agenda.

Obama has given frequent speeches about the problems that the aging population will create for the future, and for the federal budget in particular. Whatever the merits of these discussions, they did little to motivate people who were not already motivated. So then he started playing the populist card: Those health insurance execs are evil! Their gouging us with rate increases! It’s us vs. them! While insurance creates an unavoidable Moral Hazard problem – and nothing in the health care reform bill will eliminate that – I understand that health insurers were actually one of the few market forces that succeeded in moderating the growth of health-care spending. So, in his drive to push the health care bill, I suspect Obama has been flogging his friends in order to whip up the crowds. If the public needs a morality play, we’ll give them one.

Similarly, arguments about the need to avoid certain abuses in the financial markets are all very nice and intellectual, but are going nowhere. But whip up a little populist resentment about bonuses paid by investment banks and – well, it’s probably still going nowhere. But that’s the most effective lever Obama’s got. And once health care is off the table I expect we’ll see more of it.

So with the Republicans out of power, their best hope to influence public policy is to appeal to populism. Oh, now Republicans are deeply concerned about deficits; that’s what the crowd wants to hear. We dare not grant civil rights to those accused of terrorism; the Republicans are the only thing that stands between you and terrorists attending your schools! And Republicans want no part in negotiating public policy with the Obama Administration; that would muddle the clear Us vs. Them narrative.

Populism is the One Ring of Power: it may help you achieve your objectives, but you get a little more evil every time you use it. For better or worse, populism is the only tool the Republicans have right now, so they need to don the Ring a lot, even in counter-intuitive ways. As I noted before, the Republican leadership has positioned itself as the true defenders of Medicare. Oy.

But once the Republicans return to actual power -- and they may take control of the House in November -- they'll have to do some actual governing. And then the populists will feel betrayed because the simple narrative will no longer apply.

Share this