The Populist Wave

The Populist Wave

By Daniel DiSalvo - December 17, 2010

President Obama's agreement to extend the "Bush tax cuts for the wealthy" needs to be seen through the lens of contemporary populism. Populism divides the world between a small number of oppressors and a much larger number of the oppressed. The two parties have distinct populist narratives. But the Republican version has been winning the message war over the last two years.

According to the President, an economic elite and their agents (read: Republicans) are holding him, the political system, and 98% of Americans "hostage." In light of the "shellacking" the received on November 4, the President and his party must temporarily give in to the demand of the "hostage-takers" that existing tax rates for high earners remain in place.

The base of the President's party is up in arms and itching for a fight. Giving in to the hostage-takers' demands runs counter to their reading of the tealeaves. In their view, framing the tax issue as a battle between the filthy rich and the unwashed masses will work to the Democrats' benefit.

The Republicans' populist narrative, on the other hand, identifies government bureaucrats and urban cultural elites as the villains who stifle entrepreneurship and look down their noses at people in the flyover states. This populist vision has more political support at the moment, which explains Republicans' unwillingness to compromise and the president's acquiescence to the extension of the current tax rates.

It is the tea party movement that energized Republican populism. Contrary to the claims of left-of-center politicians and pundits who derided the tea partiers as a bunch of rubes manipulated by corporate interests, Doug Schoen and Scott Rasmussen show in their recent book Mad as Hell that the movement has a genuine grassroots element. And while there have been some crackpots at tea party rallies who have garnered the bulk of the press attention, Schoen and Rasmussen's poll data demonstrate that a very broad swath of Americans identify with the movement, making it difficult to define it as racist or extremist.

The tea partiers' ideological thrust stands in opposition to federal control, government spending, and the political establishment, which is wrapped in a curious penchant for Jeffersonian constitutionalism. Schoen and Rasmussen argue that such convictions emerge out of a populist dichotomy that pits the masses against an economic and political "elite." They paint a picture of a citizenry deeply estranged from government, the media, organized labor, and big business. The movement's unifying belief is that government and special interests have created an interlocking directorate, to the detriment of average Americans. Washington colludes with Wall Street while state and local governments kowtow to public sector unions. Thus tea party activists, who are neither Goldman Sachs bankers nor public employees, see the system as rigged against them.

The tea partiers' energy springs from a suspicion of those on the receiving end of government largesse. This suspicion is rooted in the quintessentially American norms of independence and work, and especially in the belief that people should provide for themselves and live within their means. Tea party patriots believe many - from pin-stripped executives to double-dipping firefighters - are scheming with the government to gain an unfair advantage, often at their expense. Therefore, handing over more money to government - no matter its source - is anathema.

Among the many possible explanations for the tea party movement's rise, Schoen and Rasmussen suggest that increased economic inequality is the taproot of its fury. On this point, their analysis chimes with that of many Democrats. While the American economy has grown well in recent decades, the fruits of that growth have been unevenly distributed. In terms of wealth, between 1983 and 2004 the top fifth of households secured 89% of America's wealth gain; 1.9% went to the middle fifth, while the bottom two fifths collectively lost 0.7%.

The last decade was particularly unkind to the middle class. The Economist reports that real median household income was 7 percent less in 2009 than 2000. In states whose economies are dependent on low-skill industries - such as Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio - median income declined dramatically. White men without college degrees were particularly hard hit. The effects of the collapse of the housing bubble were also concentrated in certain regions. Not surprisingly, the Rust Belt states and places with high foreclosure rates are hotbeds of tea party activism.

Obama was able to capture independent voters in 2008 but lost them in 2010. He has just declared that he will fight to win them over in 2012. To do that the President must grasp that this demographic has begun to develop its own political identity and that this identity is not congenial to liberalism. Rather than attribute such economic sorting to the impersonal forces of globalization, many independents and tea party affiliates think government has exacerbated the situation. The government failed to regulate sub-prime mortgages or stop the meltdown of the financial sector. TARP bailed out the big banks and the stimulus package aided powerful teachers' unions. Most middle class Americans saw little tangible benefit from either. All told, the liberal prescription of greater state intervention in the economy to address the current situation has fallen on deaf ears. The tea party movement believes that such intervention will only produce more opportunities for graft, influence peddling, and incompetence.

How to address this populist surge will be the Republican Party's central challenge for the foreseeable future. Presently, the game is theirs to lose. Independents and the tea partiers leased the GOP in 2010. They did not sign an option to buy. If the GOP is unable to find ways to satisfy these voters, they will continue to oscillate between the two parties.

A coherent policy platform may help Republicans cement their loyalty. The beginnings of such a platform can be found in Encounter Books' new Broadsides series. These short polemical pamphlets - which savage the Obama agenda - bring together a number of the nation's leading conservative intellectuals, including Victor Davis Hanson, Andrew McCarthy, John Bolton, E. J. McMahon and Stephen Moore, in what is an 18-gun salvo. These Broadsides address a panoply of public policy issues, from national security and taxes to healthcare and immigration. The ensemble indicates that, rather than being simply obstructionist, conservatives are brimming with ideas for changing the direction of the country.

To govern effectively, Republicans need to fuse the conservative thinkers of the Broadsides with the tea party movement's foot soldiers. Despite the kulturkampf between the tea partiers and the GOP Establishment during the election, the fact that the tea party movement's instincts are congruent with the analyses of conservative intellectuals makes this challenge less daunting than one might think.

However, the President would also profit from reading these little pamphlets. Not only would they help Obama better know his enemy, but he may also find ideas that will help him recapture the independent voters that abandoned his party in November.

As Clinton showed in 1996, incorporating some of the opposition's ideas is a good reelection strategy. And the 2012 election is already upon us!

Daniel DiSalvo is an assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York-CUNY.

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