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Spectrum Inversion

Henry Farrell posts on some recent research on the politics and public opinion of tax cuts, then concludes on a slight tangent with the observation "that there is space for a much greater degree of left-populism in American politics than we’ve seen recently." The interesting thing about this is that while I think Henry's right, we've seen a large-scale collapse in support for left-populism inside the Democratic Party. Also interesting, this collapse reflects less the decline of the "left" wing of the Democrats vis-à-vis the centrist wing (the reverse seems to be happening) than it does a changing conception of what counts as a "left" position. The most clearly populist in a traditional soak-the-rich corporation-bashing kind of way major Democratic candidate during the 2004 primaries was Dick Gephardt whose campaign was luckluster and collapsed early in an unlamented way.

Interestingly, none of the intellectual organs of left liberalism in the United States (say, The American Prospect, The Nation, Mother Jones, etc.) seemed interested in boosting his candidacy. This is largely because we've seen in recent years a reconceptualization of which political axes are the important ones. Howard Dean was left of the other major contenders on the Iraq War, on gay rights, on religion in public life, and had very orthodox liberal views on the environment. Therefore, his candidacy became coded as the "left" candidacy relative to the other major contenders. Efforts by his rivals to point out that in his years as Vermont Governor, Dean took positions to the right of several other major candidates on trade and on entitlement spending got no traction whatsoever. Dean eventually collapsed basically over "electability" concerns, and we wound up with Kerry versus Edwards. Here Edwards tried to play the populist card against Kerry a bit, but didn't go too hard at it (because he wanted to be Vice President), and his own DLC associations made this a rather unlikely move anyway.

Roughly speaking, I wonder whether there are enough left-populists left inside the Democratic Party for this to be a viable politics. It may be that too many of left-populism's possible constituents have already moved into the Republican sphere or into apathy for this to work.

May 6, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

what about Schumer's anti-China bill?

Posted by: praktike | May 6, 2005 3:30:42 PM

praktike--i think you're confusing left-populism with "demagogue-ery"

Posted by: Goldberg | May 6, 2005 3:42:22 PM

Once I figure out what I means, I'm going to try to use this new word, "luckluster." It sounds sort of salacious.

Posted by: washerdreyer | May 6, 2005 3:47:09 PM

It's hard knowing whether a candidate is to the left, right, or center of "the party" when the party has no visible set of principles, policy positions, and preferences.

It seems as if "the party" is only visible for that short moment before and during nominating conventions when there is some talk about the platform - which is then set aside for the smaller (and perhaps different) set of positions that the selected candidate prefers.

I've been a Dem my entire voting life, but I'l be damned if I can tell what the party position is. This is a large part of why it is so hard to have party unity in Congress: there is no measuring stick to guage a office-holder against except how the bulk of the party's office-holders vote.

I'd greatly favor a year-round party and party agenda instead of the candidate-centric situation we have now. Contrast New Labor in the UK with the Dems: UK Labor has a party agenda which MP's run upon (to varying degrees, granted). US Dems can be what they want as they run for office.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 6, 2005 3:51:47 PM

"Left liberalism" is an oxymoron, there's no such thing. Left is all about a class struggle. Liberalism is all about pretending that class struggle doesn't exist or can be reduced to nothing by some technocratic magic.

Posted by: abb1 | May 6, 2005 3:56:14 PM

The next dem to be elected President will run on a liberal populist platform. Here I'm respecting abb1's distinction, which is a proper one.

Though of course abb1 sells liberalism and capitalism short. But hey, you gotta respect anyone who believes in class struggle. It's so, you know, faith-based. All I have to do is go to Wal-Mart and McDonald's and watch the people around me. Then I know that the whole class struggle idea is a total pipe dream.

Posted by: JohnFH | May 6, 2005 4:16:01 PM

Liberalism is all about pretending that class struggle doesn't exist or can be reduced to nothing by some technocratic magic.

OK, so what is called when you acknowledge it does exist, sort of throw up your hands on ever really solving it, and try to mitigate the most grotesque consquences? I.e., it is possible to have a political view that is not utopian, isn't it?

Posted by: PaulC | May 6, 2005 4:22:36 PM

Be careful about generalizing from 2003-2004. For many Democratic voters, Bush was a uniquely bad president, worth special measures to stop. Democratic primary voters focused on two major issues: electability, and a willingness to affirm their negative opinions about Bush.

Gephardt suffered on both fronts: he was uncharismatic and a major enabler of Bush's most controversial policy--the war in Iraq. His history of good labor policies never really entered the discussion.

Find a charismatic, staunchly anti-Republican left-liberal for 2008, and I'll bet you'll see plenty of excited voters. But at this point, the Democrats mostly want to win.

Posted by: Eric | May 6, 2005 4:24:41 PM

Good point. As a populist, I think you've hit the nail on the head. Personally, I've volunteered, and worked hard, and donated what little cash I have to the Democrats for the last 2 elections because they were more populist than the Republicans. However, since the democrats seem incapable of either winning elections or executing anything like a populist agenda, I'm probably going to stop these activities.

In an earlier post you mentioned that Dean and the DLC don't have much actual disagreement. However, I really liked Dean and I hate the DLC... Why? (1) Dean speaks from principles, the DLC always speaks in terms of electability (and notable don't seem capable of realizing it) (2) Dean doesn't actually insult populists the way the DLC does - see Josh Marshall's replacement. It's fine if he thinks the rest of us are rooted in the past and he's the future, but he needs to make that case, not simply diss me and mine. Notably, the DLC-esque democrats have had the most success with me and other populist dems by convincing me about globalization and free trade, BECAUSE they've talked from principles and actually articulated real reasons and arguments, not simply insults and strategic thinking.

Posted by: MDtoMN | May 6, 2005 4:27:15 PM

All I have to do is go to Wal-Mart and McDonald's and watch the people around me.

...where you can watch the lower rungs of the (globally) privileged class. You've conveniently left out the people making the goods on the WalMart shelves or picking the lettuce that goes on your Big Mac.

Posted by: PaulC | May 6, 2005 4:29:28 PM

OK, so what is called when you acknowledge it does exist, sort of throw up your hands on ever really solving it, and try to mitigate the most grotesque consquences?

It's called 'liberalism'. But it's not 'left'. 'Left' wants to nationalize industries, 'liberalism' wants progressive taxation.

The only problem is that I can't imagine how you can be a 'liberal populist'. What are you gonna say: come with us, comrades, we'll break your chains, we'll increase the top tax bracket by 5%!

Posted by: abb1 | May 6, 2005 4:36:45 PM

PaulC,

I read somewhere that 70% of the goods on Wal-Mart's shelves are made in China. So what are the Chinese workers going to do, rise up against their Communist oppressors?

Dream on.

Posted by: JohnFH | May 6, 2005 4:37:40 PM

BTW, my working theory about "kids today" is that they're more conservative than "we were" on every issue straight on down the list--the only notable exception being gay rights, which has thankfully come into the mainstream.

And by "we", I mean those of us who were in college during Reagan's term in office. I'm not talking about boomers, here. I'm not sure of the ages of everyone who is replying here, but the results do kind of back up my theory.

Posted by: PaulC | May 6, 2005 4:41:31 PM

The Dems still get money from the liberal corporations and financiers. They get enough to keep them on a tight leash when it comes to economic populism. They are also committed to rationality (oh the pride of being 'reality based') and the current spin is that free markets and globalization are a rational liberals' preference.

The Republicans have stategized to destroy Democratic bases of support ... eventually the strapped working classes will be all that's left, and the Dems will once again bear the banners of a class-based progressive politics. That may be one Depression away, unfortunately.

Posted by: camille roy | May 6, 2005 4:42:00 PM

Oh shoot. That last one was supposed to go on the "percent Republican" thread.

Posted by: PaulC | May 6, 2005 4:42:46 PM

I read somewhere that 70% of the goods on Wal-Mart's shelves are made in China. So what are the Chinese workers going to do, rise up against their Communist oppressors?

Well, I did not mean to suggest that there was a struggle that the lower class was going to win, just that there are definitely classes, and definitely plenty of strugglin' to go around.

Posted by: PaulC | May 6, 2005 4:44:02 PM

Abb1,

leave out the "comrades" and "break your chains" nonsense.

A liberal populist will connect with what PaulC calls the lower rungs of the privileged class. He or she will articulate their concerns, magnify their hopes, and offer a vision that touches their lives. He or she will sound like a warmonger and a libertarian to NPR-type liberals. The latter will shudder and yet will vote for him or her.

Posted by: JohnFH | May 6, 2005 4:45:46 PM

JohnFH, I misread your point. Many Americans seem to act as if there were no class differences at all. I thought you were pointing to WalMart as an example of the fact that virturally all Americans live reasonably well by historical standards, to back up the non-existence of class.

Posted by: PaulC | May 6, 2005 4:46:44 PM

Roughly speaking, I wonder whether there are enough left-populists left inside the Democratic Party for this to be a viable politics. It may be that too many of left-populism's possible constituents have already moved into the Republican sphere or into apathy for this to work.

I think you spend to much time on the interwebs. There plenty of left-populists in the party. Blacks, Hispanics and Union Workers certainly aren't voting Dem for gay marriage.

The problem is that marginal voters. I think there are two classes of marginal voters that can be swayed by Dems:
-Upper Middle Class cultural liberals
and
-Culturaly Conservative economic populists.

To sway the former, Dems need to adopt more DLC/Matt Yglesias friendly economic policies.
To sway the latter, Dems must adopt less gay friendly secular bourgoise social attitudes.
I think the decision to go after yuppies over farmers has to do with the fact that Dem elites (and this includes Deaniacs) would rather give in to 'yuppies' than 'hicks'.
The actual number of populists amongst the Democratic rank and file has little to do with it.

Posted by: WillieStyle | May 6, 2005 4:55:30 PM

JohnFH,
how will a populist connect with the walmart crowd? To promise them that they all will magically become rich and live in a Manhattan penthouse seems silly. They are stupid, but they are not that stupid. The only populism I can imagine is a class-war populism. You can tell them that they're being robbed by the rich - which is not only an attractive populist message, but is also a honest truth. But the liberals won't do that, of course.

If you know how you can connect with walmart shoppers without class-war message - tell me.

There's of course the other kind of populism - jingoism, nationalism, but I'm assuming we aren't talking about that one; it's already taken.

Posted by: abb1 | May 6, 2005 5:17:13 PM

To sway the former, Dems need to adopt more DLC/Matt Yglesias friendly economic policies.
To sway the latter, Dems must adopt less gay friendly secular bourgoise social attitudes.

Well and good. But where's the advantage in voting for this sort of Democrat over a Republican? Upper Middle Class cultural liberals can always depend on the assurance that Republicans in charge won't actually pass that sort of thing. Economic populist social conservatives aren't concerned about their economic situation enough to vote for Democrats, or they simply already believe that the Republican party is serving their economic interests.

You're trying to triangulate your way out of the problem instead of asking yourself, "what can Democrats offer than Republicans don't?" Or economic and social conditions will have to change for these demographics to decide that Democrats have what these voters want.

I think the decision to go after yuppies over farmers...

Compare the number of people employed in financial services and sales to the number of people employed in agriculture for your answer to this question.

Posted by: Constantine | May 6, 2005 5:22:18 PM

What percentage of the population do you think wants nationalization of industries, abb1? I would guess that, if this message were SUPERBLY well articulated, and the right and center were unusually inept in opposing it, they might gain traction with 20% of the American population.

Posted by: Julian Elson | May 6, 2005 5:43:45 PM

Abb1,

That's the question we need to ask: "How will a populist connect with the walmart crowd?"

You bet the populist will have to be nationalist, and articulate a version of the American dream that resonates.
She or he will have to a hawk as well.

The populist will have to be able to articulate family values the way the Walmart crowd does. Hint: it has nothing to do with the gay issue.

The populist will have to articulate the "I can make it too" theme the way Barack Obama does. Not the way a trial lawyer does, or a billionaire Ms. Kerry-Heinz does ("I'm an immigrant, too.")

The populist will have to say we'll give you Eliot Spitzer types all over the place. She will coopt types like Gates and Jobs, and throw in jail the Enron types.

Class warfare, I repeat, is a pipedream. Get used to it. Or, like Camille, you can wait for the next Depression.

Posted by: JohnFH | May 6, 2005 5:47:12 PM

Economic populist social conservatives aren't concerned about their economic situation enough to vote for Democrats, or they simply already believe that the Republican party is serving their economic interests.

This is all predicated on the notion that, pace Matt and Henry, "that there is space for a much greater degree of left-populism in American politics than we’ve seen recently."
The question is, given that premise, why aren't Dems more populist.
Obviuosly, if you disagree with the premise then you need not consider anything that follows from it.

Compare the number of people employed in financial services and sales to the number of people employed in agriculture for your answer to this question.

Obviously, by farmers I meant socialy conservative, predominantly rural folks; not merely actual farmers.

Posted by: WillieStyle | May 6, 2005 5:48:22 PM

It seems there are two distinct issues here: whether class warfare exists, and whether it can be leveraged into a winning political issue.

I think that there are certainly classes and their interests are certainly opposed; if it doesn't look like warfare, that's just because the match is so uneven. But I have no doubt that privileged are prepared to use every means including outright violence to preserve their privilege, so in that sense there is class warfare. The only reason it does not come to violence is that the bread and circus route is more cost effective.

On the other hand, I agree that there's not much political hay to be made out of any of this. This is probably why I am a liberal and not a leftist.

Posted by: PaulC | May 6, 2005 5:59:12 PM

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