In the United States, inequality and economic distress have spread over the past decades. Growing numbers in the working class struggle with depression, divorce and addiction. Yet for years neither party’s establishment responded. Taxes grew more rather than less regressive. Expanded social investment was strangled by austerity policies. Labor unions grew weaker, and the minimum wage didn’t keep up with inflation. Deregulation and corporate globalization accelerated plant closings, with very little public assistance for families and communities left in their wake. It took the fake populism of President Trump and the furious indictment of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to end the silence. But why has Trump’s autocratic fake populism been able to exploit widespread popular grievances here despite Sanders and others demonstrating the force of a progressive populism?
Harvard economist Dani Rodrik recently offered several reasons — some convincing, some not so much. One reason that he suggests is that the Democratic Party floundered in part because it allowed “identity politics” and other socially liberal causes to displace focus on the bread-and-butter issues, such as incomes and jobs. But pitting identity politics against economic populism produces more heat than light. As Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg noted, Democrats don’t have a white working-class problem; they have a working-class problem. Black, Latino and single-women voters are disproportionately middle- and low-wage workers. For Democratic candidates, a populist economic message doesn’t contradict “identity politics”; it helps turn out the broad coalition of working-class voters who should be their base.
Indeed, it is the right that has successfully used identity politics to consolidate an appeal beyond its affluent base. The modern Republican Party was born in reaction to the civil rights movement, consolidating a white sanctuary in the South and deploying race-bait politics while forging an alliance of anti-abortion, pro-gun, Christian Coalition constituencies. Trump intensified this politics of division by rousing fears of immigrants and Muslims.
Rodrik also suggests that “ordinary American voters” don’t seem very interested in redistribution — in raising top-end taxes and expanding social transfers. This doesn’t ring true, either. In current polling, making the rich and corporations pay their fair share of taxes ranks at the top of voters’ priorities. According to polling by Hart Research, one of the three most compelling criticisms of the recent Republican tax cuts is that most of the benefits go to the wealthy and corporations.
Two of Rodrik’s explanations make more sense. First, he argues, Democrats grew too cozy to big money, particularly Wall Street and global corporations. Beginning in the 1970s, Democrats in Congress learned that they could translate their majorities into big campaign war chests. As elections grew more expensive — and as labor union donations declined as a percentage of the pot — big money spoke louder and louder.
The rise of big-money politics coincided with the collapse of the Keynesian consensus during the stagflation of the ’70s. As Rodrik notes, ideas matter. The right under President Ronald Reagan responded by repackaging market fundamentalism. And just as capital began going global, New Democrats under President Bill Clinton adopted what became known as neo-liberal ideas wholesale. Clinton championed the deregulation of banks, corporate-defined globalization, fiscal austerity and even the rollback of shared security, beginning with the repeal of guaranteed aid to impoverished mothers with dependent children. New Dems — “Atari Dems,” in an earlier branding — would be modern, fashionable peddlers of the new global economy. And when it blew up, President Barack Obama worked assiduously to rescue the banks, sustain the global trade strategies and turn quickly to “tightening our belts,” even with unemployment still in double digits. Ideas do matter — and, of course, ideas are bolstered by money that can create institutes, endow chairs, finance issue campaigns and rent politicians.
Will Democrats now respond to the imperative of a new populist reform movement? Some suggest that they can’t get there because they are still too close to Wall Street and too far from Main Street. Thomas B. Edsall and Thomas Piketty suggest that the growing strength of what Piketty describes as a successful, well-educated “Brahmin elite” in the Democratic base will make it hard to embrace a populist agenda. Yet polling shows that the regressiveness of the Republican tax cut is the most pressing concern for Democrats, college-educated voters and voters with incomes of more than $100,000. Young-voter enthusiasm for Sanders also suggests that a progressive populism could help mobilize a broad Democratic majority coalition.
Encouragingly, Democrats have begun the long-overdue argument about what the party stands for and which coalition it seeks to build. Democratic presidential hopefuls have begun to embrace at least some of the bolder reforms advocated by Sanders: Medicare for all, free public college, a $15 minimum wage and fair trade. Democrats have wisely opposed the Republican tax giveaways to corporations and the very wealthy, instead calling for using that money to rebuild the country and to defend Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Again, ideas matter: Pushing these policies establishes independence from big-money politics and tells voters that Democrats are listening to their problems.
The fake populism of Trump can fan the flames of division, but it has no answer for the real challenges that working people face. Will a new, bold populism on the left rise to challenge Trump’s populist cover for the old Republican agenda? That battle is still in progress — playing out in primary challenges and new political energy around the country. What is clear is that the old ideas have failed, big-money politics has been exposed as corrupted, and the battle on what comes next is joined.
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