While a substantial sector of the Democratic coalition has enthusiastically embraced the rise of Elizabeth Warren and adopted the term “populist” to describe the philosophy she embodies, other Democrats have serious reservations. In a recent column, Brookings Institution fellow William Galston, argued the case for an alternative approach of “nonpopulist liberalism.”
Galston agrees that there are indeed real grievances and issues that lie behind the current regard for populism:
The ills against which populists inveigh are rarely illusory. On the contrary: Populism typically gives voice to genuine grievances, and in so doing gains credibility and energy.
At the heart of the American dream is the promise of opportunity. But in the ABC/Washington Post survey conducted days before the 2014 midterm elections, 71% of Americans said the U.S. economic system generally favors the wealthy. Only 24% disagreed. The favors-the-wealthy supermajority included 54% of Republicans, 59% of conservatives, 64% of college graduates–and even 57% of those making more than $100,000 per year.
In January, a Pew Research Center survey found that 65% of Americans–including 61% of Republicans–agreed that the gap between the rich and everyone else has increased during the past decade.
The issue is not whether these perceptions are mistaken–they aren’t–but what to do about them.
Galston identifies contemporary populism with the movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth century of that same name and argues for the limitations of that perspective:
Populism is the politics of nostalgia. It appeals to a better time in the past–whether that means the mid-19th century, when sturdy yeoman farmers and craftsmen formed the backbone of the economy; or the decades after Congress slammed shut the gates of immigration in 1924; or the mid-20th century, when assembly-line workers enjoyed secure jobs and middle-class incomes.
Populist movements flourish when established leaders and parties fail to solve their countries’ most urgent problems. Throughout the market democracies, one problem dominates all others: the economic squeeze on working- and middle-class families. Neither the center-left nor the center-right has responded in ways that make sense to rank-and-file citizens. So they are looking elsewhere.
Populism offers many satisfactions. Its narrative is clear and easy to understand. It identifies villains–corrupt officials, unresponsive bureaucracies, arrogant elites, large corporations, giant banks, immigrants, even the Jews. It legitimizes outrage, the expression of which is one of the greatest human pleasures. It flatters the people, whose virtue and common sense, it claims, could set the country right if only rich and powerful forces didn’t stand in their way. “The humblest citizen in all the land,” declaimed William Jennings Bryan more than a century ago, “when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the whole hosts of error that they”–the elites–“can bring.”
He then suggests his preferred alternative:
To reject the populist response is not to affirm conservatism. In his controversial postelection speech, Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) made the case for a nonpopulist liberalism more interested in diagnosing conditions than in identifying enemies.
“Large forces–technology, automation and globalization–are not inherently malign forces,” he said. The task for Democrats is not to turn back the clock to the fleeting period when the American economy dominated the world. It is rather, Mr. Schumer said, to “figure out ways for the middle class . . . to be able to thrive amidst these forces.”
But how?…The old rules no longer apply, but it is not clear what the new rules are–if any exist….Which forms of public investment are needed to expand opportunity for the middle class and for those struggling to reach it? What kind of tax reform will promote faster economic growth whose fruits are broadly shared? How can productivity gains also mean progress for job creation and wages? What are the responsibilities of employers toward workers and communities, and what incentives do employers need to meet them? Faced with volatile oil prices, how can we sustain the rapid growth of a diverse U.S. energy sector? How can we accelerate the return of manufacturing jobs? How can we turn around an alarming drop in entrepreneurial activity? On what terms should we engage with the global economy?
The answers to these questions will define the future of the Democratic Party. And so will the failure to answer them. Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum. The right response to populism is to offer real solutions.
Galston ends by looking at politics:
On the Democratic side, populist economics has found its voice; not so for nonpopulist liberalism. That is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ‘s most important test as she contemplates a presidential run.