I was on vacation throughout the past week, so I missed the brouhaha regarding the role of economic populism (or lack thereof) in the Democratic Party, sparked by Tom Frank's essay in the New York Review of Books. On one side are bloggers like Nathan Newman, Max Sawicky, and John Emerson at Seeing the Forest, who believe populism is critical to the political fortunes of progressives. On the other side are what I call "populism-is-icky" bloggers, including Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, Josh Marshall, and Brad Plumer. These bloggers are partial to the type of technocratic policy wonkery that has been the Democratic Party's zeitgeist for the past 15 years, if not longer. I enjoy reading their blogs, and they provide invaluable insights, but I have a serious problem with their aversion to populism, and to Democratic politicans espousing a populist platform, such as John Edwards. In the next few days, I'll lay out the reasons why left-populism is not only preferable to technocratic centrism, but an essential element of carrying out a progressive agenda.
What I find both fascinating and maddening about the populism-is-icky bloggers is that they are impassioned defenders of Social Security, pro-worker labor laws, and health and environmental protections, and yet, in a grotesque example of cognitive dissonance, fail to acknowledge that these programs, which they take for granted, were only enacted through the type of economic populism they find so distasteful. For example, in his reply to John Emerson, Matt Yglesias writes, "it's quite true that I don't think much of populism on the merits." Huh? How does he think Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act, to give but two examples, were passed? Go back and read FDR's speeches from the 1930s, or the impassioned Senate speeches by ardent New Dealers like Robert Wagner and Burton Wheeler. It was precisely their economically populist approach, railing against Wall Street speculators and malevolent employers, that led to the enactment of New Deal legislation, not the type of statistical number crunching that Yglesias and Co. favor.
Now, I can understand why the populism-is-icky bloggers are wary of a populist approach to politics. After all, most purveyors of this craft since 1968 have come from the right, with George Wallace, Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon, and Pat Buchanan being but a handful of examples. In addition, classic populist catch-phrases such as "silent majority," "pointy-headed intellectuals who can't park a bicycle straight," and "welfare queens driving Cadillacs" hardly inspire confidence in the progressive appeal of populism. But this doesn't mean the left can't reclaim the populist mantle. Indeed, we must do so in order to implement unfinished elements of a progressive agenda, most notably universal health care. Stay tuned.