Economic Populism Only Defense for Fake Kind

Thomas FrankWith Sunday comes another article by Thomas Frank, and I was very interested to hear what he had to say. After all, he sounded semi-hopeful last week when it looked like the Kansas voters might finally have had too much and would through out Sam Brownback from office. Yet the incompetent ideologue managed to stay in office, beating the extremely moderate Democrat Paul Davis by just short of four percentage points. But really, what is there to say? Frank has said as much himself: there is no line in the sand; for much of the American middle class, there is no level of incompetence and the total disregard of the interests of the people that will hurt a politician with an R after his name. In most states, the poor are reliably Democratic. But that’s not true in Kansas; even there they pull the lever for the Republican. Because freedom or innocent babies or something.

Well, this week, Frank doesn’t have anything much to say about Kansas other than to talk about the robo-calls, The GOP’s Poisonous Double-Speak. He lists low turnout first as a reason for the bad election results. But his main interest is the fake-populism of the Republican Party. And I’ll admit, in a general sense, it has been a very big thing. After all, why was the Tea Party — those angry middle-class voters — so dedicated to the interests of the power elite? But I think the reason for this is just that conservative rage is strong and aimed at some diffuse “other.” So they were always going to find a conservative agenda to follow.

Frank’s conclusion is this:

We are living in a new, oligarchic world — an endless downward spiral for the kind of voters who put FDR in the White House four times — and it’s time for the party’s leadership to notice the changed situation. Many of our modern, post-partisan Democrats are about as well adapted to the current climate of economic fury and apprehension as an alligator is to the icy waters of the Arctic. They need to evolve, and quickly.

But I’m afraid we may be in “Old Man Yells at Cloud” territory here. It’s true. Of the two parties, only the Democrats have any kind of claim to economic populism. But it is the Republicans who manage to actually use it as an electoral tool — even if they never come close to it in terms of policy. And it isn’t like the issue hasn’t been out there. Thomas Frank himself has been making this argument. This was more or less the argument he made in 2004 with What’s the Matter with Kansas? And it is exactly the argument he made in 2011 with Pity the Billionaire.

Old Man Yells at CloudWe can rack our brains and try to figure out how the Democrats could use economic populism to its advantage. But I think that is missing the point. It isn’t that the Democrats can’t figure out how to use economic populism. It is that they think they already own the brand of “economic populism” too much for the comfort of their billionaire funders. This always reminds me of a line from The Right Stuff, “Our Germans are better than their Germans.” That is pretty much the Democrats’ line, “Our billionaires are better than their billionaires.” But as far as I can tell, they are only better in that they are pro-choice and pro-gay. In terms of economics, they don’t really seem to be different. And that means economically speaking, the Democratic Party isn’t much different from the Republican Party.

Look: I’m not saying that the parties are the same. Clearly, the Democratic Party is the one we need to work on. But it does need to be worked on. We, the Democratic base, have to force the Democratic Party to take a hard left turn into the heart of economic populism. The Republicans’ fake-populism on economic issues will remain powerful as long as real economic populism is not offered by the Democratic Party.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “Economic Populism Only Defense for Fake Kind

  1. Ha! The “our Germans” line, very good.

    So . . . how do parties change? I don’t know. If we look at the far-right, fundamentalist swing in the GOP, how did they get their agenda into the platform (or at least into political talking points and phony-baloney veto-ready bills)? Was it through refusing to vote, or voting for extremist third-party candidates, or some other method? Obviously it wasn’t through voting for Democrats in protest.

    I know churches have served as a major organizing tool for decades. I’ve long told friends to join a church, ANY church, just to have conversations with people and put a liberal voice into the mix. Who gives a damn if you believe in God. Be there at Bingo when people start talking about immigration. You won’t win anyone over but you can dilute the consensus mindset. (And when the conversation’s about theology, just nod and say “Praise Jesus.” Everybody else does!)

    Third-party movements seem to be a loser for us (or at least the Green Party does, as much as it means well.) I don’t know if threats of non-voting would work, either; clearly, the people in charge of the Democratic Party aren’t overly concerned with getting out the vote except for President stuff. They’re not encouraging us to bang on doors for school boards like the other side.

    We have some organizations, but they’re not coordinated. I did some data entry (much more my comfort zone than knocking on doors or cold-calling) for a group looking to defeat Minnesota’s anti-gay-marriage amendment a while back, and they’ve been flooding me with e-mails ever since. Even after the amendment was defeated (first time in the US that happened!) they kept pulling out the stops to get voters concerned with gay rights to be involved in the next state elections, exactly what we need to do. But that’s one organization, appealing to a rather narrow subset of voters compared with economic policy. (And they failed. The local government went GOP, although we still have a good Democrat governor so we’re not in too much trouble.)

    I’m sure there are tons of groups like this, staffed by underpaid true believers and volunteers. Where’s the structure to put everyone on the same plan? I know that’s not in our blood. We don’t want to be like the other side, where a think-tank decides “Ebola” and suddenly every right-wing church, every TV talking head, every radio show is full-on-message (until the next message comes down from On High.) Our side doesn’t believe in being stormtroopers, nor should we. Still, I think we could be better organized than we are.

    You’ve probably seen this Oliver bit on state elections, but if you haven’t, it’s brilliant: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIMgfBZrrZ8

    It shamed me into looking up the term lengths of our local representatives (which I didn’t know; they’re 4, 4, and 2, for some crazy reason) and how much they make (about $31,000, otherwise known as “insert bribe here.”) I recall reading some good, aged, local political beat reporter saying this is the worst thing about newspapers dying off. The front page stuff doesn’t matter too much, but the page B-3 bit about some local senator being caught with his hand in the cookie jar does matter, and conglomerate news won’t pay reporters to watch this stuff.

    • The conservatives pushed the Republicans to the right by taking over the local and state party infrastructures. Although as I discuss in a book I am supposedly writing, a big part of what pushed the Republican Party to the right was the Democratic Party that moved to the right. The Republicans did the only thing they could to distinguish themselves. This is a huge problem.

      I get the Peace and Freedom Party and other socialist groups. I don’t get the Green Party. It clearly fits inside the Democratic Party, so I don’t know what those people are trying to do.

      Yes, clearly we liberals have to do things differently. When I noticed some months ago how the entire Republican Party had over-night turned to using “I’m no scientist” to justify their global warming denial, I was appalled. I’d rather lose than be a member of an authoritarian group like that. It’s disgusting.

      Yeah, the local elections are really important. Here in California, it gets weird though. I was very upset at the guy who got elected supervisor. But I know that both he and the woman I wanted are Democrats (it’s a non-partisan race, however). I guess that’s nice: when the worst choices still isn’t too bad.

      • Socialists got a good minimum-wage law passed in Seattle. I’m trepidatious (wow, the computer didn’t underline that word, guess I must have used it right) about socialism. It has a terrible track record. Then again, capitalism does, too. Capitalist socialism has a very good track record (Euro-style safety nets, public ownership of important industries, heavy regulation of privately-owned companies) but for some reason that’s off the table right now.

        Given my druthers I’d prefer capitalist socialism to socialism itself. After all, capitalism has some good qualities. I think building a bridge from island A to island B is a terrific idea, the government doesn’t agree, I get people I con into investing in the bridge. If it’s a cash cow me and the investors get rich, if it’s a disaster we didn’t steal public money.

        The problem is something Bill Greider once noted. Capitalism is like a very awesome, very exciting zoo animal that keeps breaking out from its cages and mauling zoo customers. We keep thinking we can harness it and it keeps cleverly beating any financial-reform bill we pass. At some point, the zookeepers need to admit this is a dangerous fucking animal that hurts people. And maybe we shouldn’t have it anymore.

        Don’t know if you like the British actor Bill Nighy (I do!) If you do, there’s a fun “Masterpiece” thing airing this week on PBS. He’s an ex-spy or something. Basically he uncovers the TED Talks crowd in an island paradise up to their usual. It’s called “Turks & Caicos,” after the islands, and I just watched it, and it’s going to be re-aired a few times this week on secondary PBS stations. Fun Bill Nighy speeches against rich assholes, if you enjoy that sort of thing, and I do.

        • Socialism is poorly defined. If by it you mean that people do not get a share of profits for the ownership of capital equipment, then it literally has never existed and can never exist. The conservative take on capitalism is that capital ownership is basically the only thing that matters and that work itself is useless. This is why conservatives (libertarians too) are generally so much against labor unions. But all real economic systems are a mixture. This is a big thing that annoys me about conservatives: they claim to be for a pure capitalism, but they aren’t.

          I want a system that is much more free market at the bottom and much less free market at the top. I don’t want the government to get in the way of a small businessman trying to do something new. But our system puts great barriers in the way of such a businessman, even as it allows big businessmen to avoid even the most minor and reasonable regulations. I don’t think it is asking too much to put more and more constraints on people the more power they have. It isn’t the local guy with a lawn mower who does gardening around town who is a threat to society; it’s the Walton family.

          I agree with Greider’s analogy, although I don’t think that anyone actually thinks it can be harnessed. It is simply that the zoo owners think their profits are more important than the lives of the customers.

          The show is not available online yet. I like Nighy a lot. He added a lot of depth to Davy Jones in the two weaker Pirates movies. Although he is a rather typical, great British actor. Unassuming.

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