The conventional wisdom is that populism was brought back to the American scene by two renegade candidates in 2016: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. While one represented populism of the right, the other represented populism of the left, and both foreshadowed the future of both political parties, a future that breaks from America’s past as the center of the liberal order.
There’s a lot to be said of this, but one thing to bear in mind is that the seed bed for populism’s resurgence was not 2016. It was 2012.
That was the first election after the global economy’s collapse, the first in which a popular president, seen by the majority as representing a multi-cultural majority, ran against a corporate raider, who was a stand-in for the forces of greed that evaporated the wealth, security and sense of justice for millions of Americans. Barack Obama’s reelection campaign was not only the first populist campaign of the 21st century. It was the first in my lifetime.
Sanders and Trump surely knew it, consciously or not. Before 2012, it wasn’t clear how much appetite there was for populism. After 2012, it was crystal clear, especially when it came to deploying the Rhetoric of the Bad Guy. For Obama, it was the Vulture Capitalist. For Sanders, it was the Big Banks. For Trump is was the Liberal Elites and Bad Hombres. The candidates tapped into a store of rage and resentment, and directed that emotion toward his opponent.
Consider the use and meaning of the word “rigged.”
We know it in 2016, but Sanders and Trump did not operate in a vacuum. They saw how well it worked in 2012.
During a speech in Toledo, Ohio, Vice President Joe Biden said: “Look, the president and I have a fundamental commitment to dealing the middle class back into the American economy that they’ve been dealt out of for so long. And, ultimately, that’s what this election is all about. It’s a choice, a clear choice, a choice between a system that’s rigged and a system that’s fair—a system that says everyone will be held accountable for their actions, not just the middle class, a system that trusts the workers on the line instead of listening to the folks up in the suites.”
Obama, being Obama, avoided “rigged.” But its meaning was implicit in the rhetoric of “income inequality” and an economy that “works for everyone.” In a December 2015 speech in Kansas, Obama said: “It’s not a view that we should somehow turn back technology or put up walls around America. It’s not a view that says we should punish profit or success or pretend that government knows how to fix all society’s problems. It’s a view that says in America, we are greater together—when everyone engages in fair play, everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share.”
It’s easy to forget the above. President Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, the wonkiest wonk of all, so it looks like populism won for the first time in a long time, and like the Democrats have a lot to learn about populism. In fact, the Democrats understood all along given Obama’s twin victories and given the pressure from the left to embrace populism for years prior to 2016. But in defeat, the Democrats can’t argue the point, because doing so deepens the prevailing impression that they don’t get it. That’s why Sen. Chuck Schumer’s blueprint for the future looks like a mea culpa when it is, in fact, a continuation of Obama’s brand of populism.
In today’s New York Times, the Senate Minority leader lays out his party’s answer to Trumpism. But before getting into the weeds, Schumer shrewdly says:
For far too long, government has gone along, tilting the economic playing field in favor of the wealthy and powerful while putting new burdens on the backs of hard-working Americans. Democrats have too often hesitated from taking on those misguided policies directly and unflinchingly—so much so that many Americans don’t know what we stand for.
In the last two elections, Democrats, including in the Senate, failed to articulate a strong, bold economic program for the middle class and those working hard to get there. We also failed to communicate our values to show that we were on the side of working people, not the special interests. We will not repeat the same mistake.
Again, this isn’t quite true. But it’s best to say sorry and get on with it. Much of Schumer’s op-ed feels as if it could have come from Obama’s White House. The details differ, but the broad outlines are the same. The Democrats, Schumer said, stand in favor of spending $1 trillion on infrastructure (not the public-private hybrid Trump is proposing); of raising the federal minimum wage to $15 a hour; of passing legislation to require paid family and sick leave.
For all this, however, there is a difference between Obama’s populism and the Democrats’: a renewed focus on anti-trust. Obama encouraged corporations to play fair, but his preference was using the bully pulpit. If the Democrats are serious, they are prepared to do more than naming and shaming. They are prepared to flex the federal government’s muscle to combat greed.
Our antitrust laws … allow huge corporations to merge, padding the pockets of investors but sending costs skyrocketing for everything from cable bills and airline tickets to food and health care. We are going to fight to allow regulators to break up big companies if they’re hurting consumers and to make it harder for companies to merge if it reduces competition.
In doing so, the Democrats appear ready to meld populist policy (anti-trust) with popular rhetoric (new Bad Guy: Big Business). Democrats are returning, finally, to populism.