“More Populism” Not As Simple As It Sounds

Harold Meyerson today addresses the increasingly popular false equivalency habit of treating Elizabeth Warren as the left-wing counterpart to Ted Cruz or Jim DeMint–an ideologue placing ideological pressure on a mainstream party.

[T]hese assessments miss one crucial difference between Warren and the right-wingers: She has crossover appeal. More importantly, so does Warrenism.

Cruz and DeMint can claim no allies within what remains of moderate Republican ranks. Warren’s war on Wall Street, by contrast, has enlisted colleagues on the right flank of the Democratic Party.

Meyerson then talks about Warren’s success (noted here as well) in bringing Joe Manchin and Claire McCaskill on board with her votes against a cloture motion to move the Cromnibus with its Wall Street derivatives swap language intact. And he quotes polling data showing that the white working class voters who are so abundant in places like West Virginia think corporations have too much power, just as people like Warren say they do.

That’s all well and good, but it’s important to be precise on what kinds of “populist” pitches might work with white-working-class voters. On average these voters don’t much trust government any more than they do Wall Street. One good thing about Warren’s pitch is that she tends to focus on ways in which Big Government is working with Wall Street instead of making a broad case for regulation, because regulation–particularly environmental regulation in places like West Virginia–often strikes white-working-class voters as a job killer, precisely what Republicans keep telling them. But it’s important not to over-estimate how much government activism these folks will support, even if it’s not for what they consider to be “welfare” benefiting other people.

Until recently the argument for more “populism” in the Democratic Party usually had a second component: less progressivism, or at least less emphasis on progressivism, on cultural issues. Thus Tom Frank in What’s the Matter With Kansas accused Democrats of betraying the white working class’s economic interests and cultural views, deciding instead to chase upper-income professionals who were liberal on cultural issues and conservative on economic issues.

Well, that’s train’s left the station, as Ron Brownstein notes in commenting on Chuck Schumer’s case for appealing to while also not annoying white middle-class voters:

Today, social liberalism aimed at college-educated and single whites, especially women, on issues like abortion, gay rights, and contraception is the Democrats’ best asset in the white electorate. The tension (which Schumer skirted) is that those cultural commitments, now almost universally endorsed in the party, further antagonize many of the working-class whites the senator wants to court with “middle-class” economic programs like college aid.

For years now, I’ve been telling fellow-liberals that it’s a mistake to believe they can displace cultural issues by shutting up about them and just talking about economics, because frankly that’s insulting to people who do have strong cultural views, whether they are “progressive” or “reactionary” or based on personal identity, science or religion. Forget about your beliefs on the structure of the universe and your place in it and chow down on government benefits like everybody else, that approach seems to say, and there’s never really been much evidence it works.

What progressives need right now is less a debate between “populists” and “centrists” than a clarifying discussion on what “populism” actually involves beyond hostile rhetoric aimed at Wall Street, which is the easy and fun part. I’m personally not real interested in an economic agenda and message that deliberately ignores poor people on tactical grounds; that’s what offended me about Schumer’s prescriptions. But we do need to be realistic about the limits of altruism or social solidarity among white middle-class voters. So there’s plenty to discuss that goes beyond the current yes/no talk about “populism.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.