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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Outlets for Angry Populism

The broadly exhibited public anger about the AIG bonus scandal, and equally broad if less intense hostility to federal “bailouts” of financial institutions, has spurred a lot of worthy ruminations about populism in its various manifestations. Most of them quote Bob Borosage (though without a link; I can’t seem to find the source online, either) as reminding us of this historical lesson:

If the Roosevelt era is any parallel, you’ll get both a left-wing populism and a right-wing populism. It was not just Huey Long, it was also Father Coughlin. There is an anger out there that is populist and will take right-wing and left-wing forms. And politicians on each end of the political parties–aided by populist rabble-rousers–will start to stoke this anger and move it.

Today at TNR Walter Shapiro talks at some length about the risk of a major populist backlash against Obama’s financial policies, and even suggests the White House fears such a backlash more than any conventional Republican opposition. But he goes on to note that there’s no obvious political vehicle for this backlash. To the extent that Republicans oppose corporate subsidies, it’s primarily from a laissez-faire point of view that’s not shared, and never really has been shared, by that much of the public. A party that excoriates bailouts while demanding lower corporate and upper-income taxes, and in some cases applauding deflation and unemployment as healthy, isn’t going to go much farther than a default-drive anti-incumbent electoral option, particularly since the GOP continues to hold generally unpopular positions and manias on cultural issues. And as Shapiro notes, for all the unhappiness evident in some precincts of the Left about the policies and backgrounds of administration officials like Geithner and Summers, there are no signs so far of a revolt against Obama:

[U]nlike Democratic predecessors like Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter, Obama does not have to brood about a political threat from his left flank. Even Vermont’s independent socialist Senator Bernie Sanders offers praise for the new president: “I think, in general, Barack Obama is doing a very good job.” For Capitol Hill left-wingers like Sanders, the emphasis is less on pressuring Obama and more on shining a spotlight on Wall Street for its rule of ruin. “We need a real investigation–not a sham investigation–about how this crisis did occur and who were the people pushing subprime loans and who were the people who fought for deregulation,” Sanders says. “We need a real investigation and we need to hold people accountable.”

Still, Shapiro notes, the anger out there is real and palpable, and could produce “ideologically incoherent rage.” He specifically suggests that bipartisan coalitions in Congress could emerge to block future Obama measures that appear aimed at propping up financial or even industrial firms. That certainly makes sense, if you remember how hard it was to secure congressional approval of the very first bailout package last year, despite support from the president, congressional leaders of both parties, and the presidential candidates of both parties.
Tactical coalitions aside, though, the ideological and institutional barriers to some left-right populist convergenge that overturns not only the Obama administration but politics-as-we-know-it are formidable. It’s worth remembering that the terrifying alliance of Huey Long, Father Coughlin and Francis Townsend that Borosage alludes to, united in hostility to both the New Deal and Corporate America, ultimately produced little more than the anemic Union Party ticket of 1936, which registered less than 2% of the popular vote as FDR cruised to a crushing re-election victory.
Strange times produce strange politics, so Team Obama is wise to worry about the kind of rage spurred by the AIG mess. In the end, though, the administration’s ability to turn the economy around will determine whether populist outrage can be assuaged or even harnessed by Barack Obama, or instead becomes a phenomenon as “postpartisan” as anything he proposes.

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