By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Monday, January 25, 2010; A17
"Populism" is the most overused and misused word in the lexicon of commentary. But thanks to a reckless decision by Chief Justice John Roberts's Supreme Court and the greed of the nation's financial barons, we have reached a true populist moment in American politics.
The Supreme Court's 5-to-4 decision last week giving American corporations the right to unlimited political spending was an astonishing display of judicial arrogance, overreach and unjustified activism.
Turning its back on a century of practice and decades of precedent, a narrow right-wing majority on the court decided to change the American political system by tilting it decisively in favor of corporate interests.
An unusually blunt headline in Friday's print edition of The New York Times told the story succinctly: "Lobbies' New Power: Cross Us, and Our Cash Will Bury You."
Think of this rather persuasive moment in a chat between a corporate lobbyist and a senator: "Are you going to block that taxpayer bailout we want? Well, I'm really sorry, but we're going to have to run $2 million worth of really vicious ads against you." The same exchange might take place on tax breaks, consumer protections, environmental rules and worker safeguards.
Defenders of this vast expansion of corporate influence piously claim it's about "free speech." But since when is a corporation, a creation of laws passed by governments, entitled to the same rights as an individual citizen? This ruling will give large business entities far more power than any individual, unless you happen to be Michael Bloomberg or Bill Gates.
The only proper response to this distortion of our political system by ideologically driven justices is a popular revolt. It would be a revolt of a sort deeply rooted in the American political tradition. The most vibrant reform alliances in our history have involved coalitions between populists (who stand up for the interests and values of average citizens) and progressives (who fight against corruption in government and for institutional changes to improve the workings of our democracy). It's time for a new populist-progressive alliance.
This court ruling should also challenge the fake populism we have seen of late. It disguises a defense of the interests of the powerful behind crowd-pleasing rhetoric against "Washington," "taxes" and, yes, "Obama."
President Obama has helped feed this faux populist revolt by failing to understand until recently how deeply frustrated politically moderate, middle-class Americans are over policies that bailed out the banks while leaving behind millions of unemployed and millions more alarmed about their economic futures.
If average voters came to see government primarily as an instrument of the banks, why should they believe that the same government could help them on matters of health care and employment? This problem was aggravated by puffed-up, self-involved U.S. senators who conspired to make the legislative process look as ugly and chaotic as possible.
Obama began turning toward populism before the results of the Massachusetts Senate race rolled in. Republican Scott Brown's victory made the new turn imperative.
The president has now offered a modest tax on the big financial institutions to cover the costs of bailouts, and a tougher approach to banks that will limit their size and their capacity to make economy-wrecking financial bets. It's a decent start, and it's about time.
Next will come legislation to turn back the Supreme Court's effort to undermine American democracy. Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen are working with the White House on a measure to rein in the reach of the Supreme Court ruling.
Their bill is still being written, but the ideas they're considering include prohibiting political spending by corporations that receive government money, hire lobbyists or make most of their income abroad.
And shouldn't shareholders have the right to vote before a corporation spends money on politics? Do we want foreign-owned corporations, especially those owned by foreign governments, to exercise an undue influence in our politics? Imagine what an enterprise owned or influenced by the Chinese or Russian governments might try to do to a politician who campaigns too ardently for human rights?
My favorite idea: Requiring chief executives to appear in ads their corporations sponsor, exactly as politicians have to do. ("I'm Joe Smith, the chief executive of Acme Consolidated Megacorporation, and I approve this message.")
President Obama was right to invoke Teddy Roosevelt in his radio address on Saturday. American democracy and the square deal in government for which TR battled are in jeopardy.