Earlier this week, Paul Krugman wrote, Rand Paul and the Empty Box. It follows on what I seem to be seeing everywhere: the argument that Rand Paul can’t become president because there just aren’t that many libertarians. Apparently, one in nine voters call themselves libertarians. I guess people can call themselves whatever they want. But even as an ex-libertarian, I find most people’s use of the term offensive. For most people, being a “libertarian” is something like Rand Paul: they are conservatives who think maybe we shouldn’t incarcerate cannabis smokers and maybe we should leave the LGBT community alone. Or as I often put it: libertarians are conservatives who are embarrassed to call themselves Republicans.
But Krugman countered the libertarians with what we might call the populists. These are people who are socially conservative and economically liberal. Krugman thinks that there are even fewer of these people than there are libertarians. Everyone has their blind spots, I guess. And Krugman’s overall point is correct, regardless of what people think, they tend to gravitate into the liberal or conservative camps. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of populists. I think that the populists may, in fact, be the biggest political class in the United States.
Think back to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? The whole story of that book was not that the people of Kansas were economically conservative. It was that their social conservatism trumped everything else. Although the book has been characterized as being about people voting against their own interests, it is not. It is about people placing social issues at the top of their concerns and the Republican Party using that to enact laws that mostly have nothing to do with what the social conservatives want.
If you look at polling on American’s beliefs about different political issues, you will see that they are slightly to the right on social issues and they are fairly far to the left on economic issues. In fact, they are usually well to the left of the Democratic Party itself. I’ve discussed this problem a lot around here. The Democratic Party really doesn’t offer much of a choice on economic issues — it is mostly like Republican Lite. So if a populist cared equally about social and economic issues, she would have a real problem choosing one of the two big parties because the Republicans would to her right on social issues and the Democrats would be to her right on economic issues.
I am a liberal on social and economic issues. But they are not equal in my eyes. If there were a truly populist party — moderately conservative on social issues and quite liberal on economic issues — I would abandon the Democratic Party. I wouldn’t feel good about the social issues. But I would feel certain that greater economic equality would lead to greater social equality. And it might do so quicker than it would on our current path.
But it bothers me me greatly that as keen a commentator as Paul Krugman would think that these populists represent a small part of the electorate. His belief is part of what sustains a political system that does not even try to appeal to a huge segment of the population. Instead, we are stuck with both major American political parties beholden to Wall Street and other interests. This is democracy in name only.