Economic Populism

ECONOMIC POPULISM….So what’s the matter with Kansas? Brad Plumer answers: nothing, really. It’s just that they’re too well off to respond all that strongly to populist economic messages from Democratic politicians these days. If there were lines at soup kitchens that would be one thing, but the reality is that there aren’t many Kansans ? or non-Kansans ? who are all that badly off.

As evidence, Brad links to a Steve Rose essay that hauls out a bunch of statistics:

  • Only about 11% of Americans qualify for safety net programs (aside from retirement programs).

  • Another 12% have incomes just above the cutoff for safety net programs.

  • The number of good jobs has increased a lot in the past 50 years. Today, only 34% of male workers and 10% percent of female workers are part of the traditional “industrial proletariat.”

It’s easy to misunderstand the point of all this. Neither Plumer nor Rose are arguing that liberals should abandon a liberal economic message. Far from it. But they are arguing that the days are long gone when an economic message by itself had enough power to energize a mass movement.

It’s a worthwhile point to make, and I think it applies equally to the rights revolution that powered the 60s. Obviously there’s still plenty of progress to be made on gender equality, race equality, and so forth, but at the same time we’ve come a long way since Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. Liberals need to keep pushing these issues, but at a tactical level they also need to realize that by themselves they aren’t likely to swing a lot of votes.

So what are the problems that large numbers of voters are seriously worried about? Brad echoes a couple of suggestions that Matt Yglesias made a few days ago ? income instability, the two-income trap, work/family stress ? that I continue to be skeptical about. However, I think my skepticism isn’t so much over the salience of the issues themselves as it is over my doubt that any Democratic politician would be willing to press for policies that were bold enough and simple enough to convince people they’d actually work.

Still, it’s an extremely worthwhile conversation to have. I’d like to hear suggestions for tackling these kinds of problems that involves big ideas, not merely a laundry list of wonkishness. But in a country where even proposing federally funded daycare is pretty much out of bounds, I don’t hold out much hope.

UPDATE: Max has a few thoughts about this too.