Economic Populism Is Not a Dead End for Dems

Progressive Policy Institute

Tom Sullivan wrote a good article over at Digby’s Blog, Picking Sides. It’s about the split in the Democratic Party between the progressives and the “moderates.” The supposed moderates are actually just what the Democratic Party has been since Bill Clinton. I don’t want to go all John Birch Society on you, but more and more, it is hard not to conclude that the New Democrats were just the reserve troops of the Reagan Revolution. Just as only Nixon could go to China, only “liberal” Clinton could end welfare as we know it. And only “liberal” Obama could keep all the criminals in charge following the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression by looking forward as opposed to looking backwards.

Sullivan goes through all the people who are saying that the Democrats must continue on pandering to their wealthy donors rather than their quickly liberalizing voters. He noted, “Village Democrats are consistently about a decade behind their base.” Actually, I think it is worse than that. For most of the last three decades, the Democratic establishment hasn’t followed the base in the least; there is simply no connection whatsoever. The Democratic establishment has the ultimate philosophy about the Democratic voter, “Who else are they gonna vote for? At least we aren’t as bad as the Republicans!” The fact that they lost the presidency in 2000 because of that philosophy, doesn’t seem too big a price to pay. After all, it’s not like Bush the Younger was bad for the Democratic donors!

But there was something in Sullivan’s article that was really very funny, although I’m not sure he meant it to be:

In a surprising attack on the Warren Wing in the The Wall Street Journal last December, Third Way warned that Warren-style economic populism is a dead end for Democrats.

This is the kind of statement that can make me choke. It’s like Bush the Younger warning Sweden that the whole social democracy business may be a dead end. Even if it’s true, what possible reason would Sweden have for listening to Bush the Younger? So let’s see: a couple of guys who have a vested interest in populism losing the fight for control of the Democratic Party published an OpEd in one of the most wacko conservative publications in existence. Has there ever been a greater sign to the Democratic Party that it needs to move in the populist direction?

The truth is that the New Democratic movement was a conspiracy. It is just that it wasn’t hidden. The stated purpose of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was to turn the Democratic Party away from its turn to the left in the 1960s and 1970s. But that was a lie. The party had turned to the left only on social issues. Democrats had brought down taxes in the 1960s and didn’t touch them in the 1970s. But the DLC wasn’t interested in the social left turn (that was mostly allowing blacks to vote, by the way). No, the DLC was only really interested in economic issues. So they weren’t turning the Democrats back into a former authentic self; they were turning the Democratic Party into what the Republicans were on economic issues. And this, of course, allowed the Republicans to simply go crazy.

So it is no surprise that the corporate Democrats think that the Democratic Party moving in a populist direction is a dead end. It is for the “moderate” Democrats. What it is for the Democratic Party at the ballot box, we will have to wait and see. But the people I talk to — liberal and conservative alike — are overwhelmingly populist when it comes to economic issues. Conservatives generally have a problem with liberal social policy. Adding liberal economic policy will make them more open to the Democratic Party. But I’ll admit: the billionaire donors of both parties will not be happy about this.

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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.

8 thoughts on “Economic Populism Is Not a Dead End for Dems

  1. I am amazed at how stingy some liberals are. Forget about the elite of the Democratic party for a moment. Upper-Middle class folks who think that gay weddings and global warming marches and feminist teach-ins are supposed to somehow feed a family in Appalachia or get black folks in Missouri to come out and vote in every municipal election.

    You need to be radically different in policy and tone, on the economy, in order to differentiate yourself from Republicans. Present a clear choice and working class people of color will be energized and will actually vote. Present a serious contrast and working class whites will realize that an actual increase in wages and social security benefits are better than cheap racial and cultural flattery.

    Of Course, that might require modest tax increases for wealthy people and most Democratic leadership is wealthy so I expect them to stay with their current strategy. They will be liberal on the cheap, they will wage a culture war from the left and combined with the dependable Republican foot in mouth incidents, they will cobble together 52 to 53 percent of the vote in Presidential election years.

    People quip that libertarians are “Republicans who smoke weed.” I think we can add that Centrist Democrats are Republicans who have gay friends or Republicans women who don’t like to get catcalled or Republicans who own a beach house.

    • There is also a great deal of cynicism among Democrats — and not just the elite ones. I often get into comment arguments with people who claim the party can’t get more liberal because the poor just won’t vote. Of course, one of the things we could do is make it easier for the poor to vote.

      I do, however, think it is important not to confuse “upper middle-class liberals” and “liberals.” The truth is that the poor are liberal. We don’t hear much from them in the media, but they are there. And that really is what liberalism is. Both groups tend to agree on issues, but it is a question of focus. My focus is with the “liberals”: the economy. The only reason I care about social issues is because I see their economic effects. Abortion, for example, is a huge economic issue. But I wouldn’t necessarily be against making abortion illegal if the government was forced to provide all mothers with a middle class lifestyle for at least 20 years from the birth of their last child. But just see how far you get with that proposal with the anti-choice movement.

  2. I like the use of the word ‘stingy’ here, quite apt. It seems like the Party could gain a lot of loyal, stable support by even a very moderate commitment to pro-underdog economic measures. By even very mild obstacles to Wall Street influence in the cabinet. Etc. I could go on, but you know the song, C.K. It doesn’t look like it’s coming.

    Yes, it seems that there would be a pretty awesome gain in average living standards and loyalty to the Party by even very moderate commitment to pro-underdog economic measures. But it doesn’t look like it’s coming.

    • I’m a bit more optimistic. But I had read a recent poll that found that a shockingly small percentage of people could correctly name which party controlled which house of Congress. I don’t think much would come from a better cabinet. Then again, it would inspire people like us who would talk to others.

  3. I just did not notice the stuff I had cut and pasted was will there. Screwed up and I was unable to fix my edits after.

    You’re optimistic – are you just saying that the change has to come sometime, that the viability of the Party will be threatened if they continue to avoid questions of substantive economic justice? Maybe, and you would know better than me.

    I’ve been saying for a long time that what is needed is a grassroots takeover of the large Democratic Party centres in the large cities. This seems actually something that could be done, but will it happen?

    • I’m optimistic because I’m pessimistic about human nature. The rich have shown themselves to be incredibly shortsighted. They will continue to take more and more for themselves. They’ve managed to pretty well cut themselves off from the rest of us, so that we have become “them.” They will overreach.

      As you may know, I’m extremely fond of rats. But most people aren’t. I saw a documentary recently where rats were tested for sharing. Given 7 chocolate chips (their normal one-sitting serving), they left two for another rat who was caught in a cage. So if humans were more like rates, we would never have reached this point. Of course, the moral sense of rats isn’t that different from the moral sense of humans. But the rich are able to twist their moral sense in knots for many reasons that I won’t go into here.

      Ultimately, the Democratic Party will have to reform in much the way you say. Democrats who really care have to work locally — take over school boards and such. The national problems with the party are due to local problems with the party.

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