Thursday :: May 12, 2005

A Final Thought on Populism


by rayman

Since today is a busy news day, I'd just like to get in a few final comments about the role of populism in the Democratic Party. To a large extent, I think the intra-party divide that I've outlined is a class issue. As everyone knows by now, Democrats have been hemorrhaging (white) working class voters over the past 35 years. Fortunately, we still have considerable support among the African-American and Latino working class. I'm not saying we should take these two voting blocs for granted; rather, we've maxed-out our political support among these two groups. Thus, to build an enduring majority, we have to look elsewhere.

Interestingly, one group of voters that's strongly trending towards the Democrats is the professional class. In The Emerging Democratic Majority, Teixeira and Judis approvingly cite the rapidly growing "ideopolis" communities (e.g. Northern Virginia, the North Carolina Research Triangle, Austin, TX) where Democrats have made significant gains among educated, upper-middle class "knowledge workers." I think you can see where I'm going with this: If these well-to-do professionals represent the future of the party, as Judis and Teixeira argue, how can the Democrats craft an economically populist message aimed at the working class without turning off this increasingly influential voting bloc?

Indeed, I would argue that most of the "populism-is-icky" bloggers that I've referred to in the past few days fall neatly into this category. They've grown up in comfortable, middle-class environments, and have earned college and professional degrees as well. (For the record, I myself grew up in an upper-middle class suburb, and will be receiving my law school diploma in three days. So yes, my working-class credentials are suspect/nonexistent. However, I consciously work to keep my yuppie pathologies in perspective and under control, for what it's worth.) Therefore, the type of down-home populism which is the M.O. of a John Edwards, for example, is not going to appeal to them, or so you would expect.

So is there a future for economic populism in the Democratic Party? Even though the preceding analysis is pessimistic, I would argue that the answer is yes. Look at Howard Dean's ill-fated primary run. Dean ran an undeniably populist campaign (i.e. his focus on health care, his clever "Bush tax" tagline). Although substantively most of his positions were indistinguishable from other Democrats, his rabble-rousing rhetoric shocked and awed the technocratically-minded Democratic establishment, who were simply not used to this old-fashioned (that is, FDR and Truman) style of barnburning populism. But who were the Democratic faithful who flocked to Dean's campaign? Why, none other than the aforementioned knowledge workers!

"Dean activists are far wealthier, better educated, more secular and much less ethnically diverse than other Democrats. A disproportionate number of Dean activists are white, well-educated Baby Boomers fully a third are college graduates between the ages of 45 and 64, compared with just 9% of Democrats in the general public."

Dean's campaign, although ultimately a failure, demonstrated that Democrats can potentially craft an economically populist message targeted at white working class voters without alienating the middle-class professionals who now constitute a key voting bloc. Of course, the reason why I use the word "potentially" is because this argument is speculative, as Dean never made it to the general election. Still, as long as bourgeois yuppies (which I unmistakably am) maintain an open mind about economic populism, I think that eventually, Democrats will be able to win back many of the working class voters who have steadily moved away from the party since 1968.

rayman :: 12:10 PM :: Comments (21) :: Digg It!