Are We All “Populists” Now?

When WaPo’s Balz and Rucker proclaim a political trend, it’s already half-way to becoming the CW. That’s why their thumbsucker today could matter and needs some instant scrutiny.

The headline is “Both parties agree: Economic mobility will be a defining theme of 2016 campaign.” The subhed is: “On right and left, a search for a credible populist message.”

Now it is good news indeed if Republicans are engaging seriously with issues of economic inequality and wage stagnation. After all, one of the main reasons for political gridlock is that the two major parties disagree not just on “solutions” to our big national problems but in defining what they are. But I’m not as confident as Balz and Rucker that this is happening. Here’s their evidence:

Presidential hopefuls in both parties agree on at least one thing: Economic mobility, and the feeling of many Americans that they are being shut out from the nation’s prosperity, will be a defining theme of the 2016 campaign.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush last week became the latest Republican to signal a readiness to engage Democrats on what historically has been their turf, putting issues of middle-class wage stagnation, poverty and shared prosperity at the forefront of their political messages.

Bush’s framing of the economic and social challenges facing the country nearly mirrors that of likely Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as other possible contenders on the left. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has written a book on the subject, “American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone,” to be published this week, while Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has proposed policies for distressed communities that he sees as “the ticket to the middle class.”

And Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee who was portrayed by Democrats as insensitive to and out of touch with the lives of middle- and working-class Americans, has told friends he considers poverty a topic du jour as he weighs another run in 2016.

Trouble is, when Republicans do choose to talk about economic issues other than the terribly high taxes on “job creators” or the horrendous burden on businesses of anti-discrimination laws or environmental regulations or collective bargaining rights, they tend to adapt the same old agenda to the newly defined problem. So if there is a consensus the GOP needs a message on upward mobility, don’t be surprised if we are told yet again that what po’ folks need is liberty from dependence on government, and what middle-class folks need is for their employers to have an easier time doing exactly whatever it is they want to do.

As for the “credible populist message” consensus, an awful lot depends on one’s definition of “populism.” Anti-government populism (not to mention the ever-ready conservative cultural “populism”) can entirely coincide with the worship of corporate job-creators–at least those corporate job-creators who do not egregiously depend on public subsidies. And indeed, the libertarian strain of “conservative populism” most associated with Rand Paul is all about the fiction that the only problem with capitalism is “crony capitalism.” Grinding down one’s workers, exporting profits, avoiding taxes, developing happy feet in search of the most submissive host communities–these are all wonderful things so long as government is not actively involved in anything other than getting out of the way!

Since Republican “populism” is so often elitism in disguise, and because so many conservative “remedies” for poverty and inequality are so threadbare (particularly the “devolve the safety net” dodge endorsed on the Right again and again), progressives should welcome a robust debate on the subject. But let’s don’t concede too much credibility to Republicans until they’ve earned it.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.