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Populism, Pro and Con

John Emerson reads my thoughts on the declining fortunes of populism within the Democratic Party:

Matt was talking about whether a populist could win in the Democratic primaries, but along the way he seems to admit that there are actually a lot of populist voters out there, but that they're not Democrats any more.

He doesn't suggest that if the Democrats learned to speak to these alienated (or Republican) populist voters, they might actually win an election now and then. Like a significant (controlling) fraction of the Democratic Party, Matt would rather lose with a neoliberal than win with a populist.

I don't think I actually hold any of the views being attributed to me. Now it's quite true that I don't think much of populism on the merits, but I'm perfectly aware that Democrats would probably do better at winning elections if they did worse at appealing to me. I just don't think a really populist candidate could win a Democratic primary. I don't see, say, Byron Dorgan being able to attract any significant support as a party leader. Though who knows: Harry Reid (pro-life, never voted for a trade agreement, moderate on guns, long-time supporter of a more inflationary monetary policy) is a step or two in the populist direction, though he doesn't really have the personality to play the part all that well.

May 7, 2005 | Permalink

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» Democrats and populism from Half Sigma
This is a sad indictment of the Democratic party, coming from Matthew Yglesias who is a Democrat (but more rational than most Democrats): I just don't think a really populist candidate could win a Democratic primary. Now my understanding [Read More]

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Unless "populist" just means "the policy positions of culturally conservative white people"--which is pretty much how it seems to be used most of the time--I fail to see how Reid's position on abortion is more "populist" than John Kerry's. [Read More]

Tracked on May 8, 2005 11:25:31 AM

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I was on vacation throughout the past week, so I missed the brouhaha regarding the role of economic populism (or lack thereof) in the Democratic Party, sparked by Tom Frank's essay in the New York Review of Books. On one... [Read More]

Tracked on May 10, 2005 11:30:30 AM

» Why Populism? from The Left Coaster
I was on vacation throughout the past week, so I missed the brouhaha regarding the role of economic populism (or lack thereof) in the Democratic Party, sparked by Tom Frank's essay in the New York Review of Books. On one... [Read More]

Tracked on May 10, 2005 11:33:50 AM

Comments

I think you are selling Harry Reid short. I'm a blue collar working stiff living in the 'Ashcroft' land of Missouri (to my shame) and what I have seen and heard from Harry Reid has appeal here. It is how he speaks as much as what he says. He fanned a small glimmer of hope that the Democrats might have a spine.

Posted by: bubbas | May 7, 2005 9:11:39 PM

I'm hoping that more attention will be paid to the new governor of Montana. He knows how to do the populist thing--the Walmart Tax, his successful pitching of environmental values to gun owners, his clear, jargon and platitude-free talk. He should be giving the Clintons and other "leaders" lessons.

Posted by: lily | May 7, 2005 9:19:34 PM

Bryon Dorgan a populist? The guy voted for the bankruptcy bill! Harry Reid is a populist, but he is not socially liberal which makes it very difficult for him to win a democratic primary. The real liberal populist who might run for President in 2008 is Russ Feingold and he definitely would get huge support from Democrats.

I think the reason why a populist would have trouble winning a democratic primary is not because he would have trouble getting support from Democrats. The reason why is because the MSM would hate the guy, label him an unelectable liberal, and the Democratic primary voters would act like a bunch of MSM dittoheads and vote for the guy the MSM has crowned "most electable." This is why Kerry won the Iowa caucus last time and so far Democrats have not shown themselves to be any smarter toward the MSM.

Posted by: Dan the Man | May 7, 2005 9:21:52 PM

I'm actually semi-retired, you know. Apparently my problem getting links in the past was that I wasn't nasty enough. And all that time I thought it was because I was too nasty.

The stereotypical populist issues are gun control and free trade, with race and homophobia lurking in the shadows. That's the way Republicans want to define populism (plus some things about latte, tassel loafers, etc.), and as long as they're are defined that way the Democrats can't win.

There are other issues which are also populist -- minimum wage, worker's rights, enforcement of labor law (overtime pay, right to breaks, protection of pensions), health insurance. They don't have media prominence and aren't gut issues preached in churches, but they do make a real difference in people's lives and could be sold, with an effort. (There are also real red-meat demogoguing opportunities -- non-work stuff -- with corporate fraud, Enron, etc., but between the media and Democratic implication in the fraud, these issues have just died.)

One of my many disagreements with the Democrats, and it's not just me, is their failure to develop constituencies between elections. In order to change the mind of the white working class (which is what we're talking about) it would take a continuous multi-year outreach effort. These guys aren't going to fall into our lap. (I think that the MoveOn GOTV was great, but as far as I know they aren't working now on outreach to new constituencies.)

The question of who a good populist cnadidate would be, or how this would play in the primaries, is pretty secondary. It's enlarging the Democratic base that I'm talking about. (Of course, efforts at enlarging the base will be wasted if the Democrats then go ahead and nominate Bayh or someone like that.)

A major problem is that the media ignores this kind of thing. My solution to that is that we find half a billion and build up a complete new media system, including think-tanks. The media we have now are jellified and brain dead at best. It's not actually completely conservative, but we can absolutely count on it to fail us at key moments.

Year-to-year survival while letting the Republicans and the jellified media define the terms of the debate is a sure loser. In fact, if you look at Congres and the Presidency, you can see that it's already lost.


Posted by: John Emerson | May 7, 2005 9:22:03 PM

I'm not a big fan of populism either, with it's latent (or not so latent) hostility toward women, queers, immigrants, etc. but it should be clear to anyone with half a soul left in this country that corporatism is out of control, and the middle class has been under assault for a generation. Perhaps it's time for a Springsteen-style populism which is certifiably pro-working-man and unabashedly American, but isn't so implicitly noxious toward gays (he did after all write the theme song to Philadelphia), immigrants (think: the Ghost of Tom Joad), and women (okay, so I can't think of too many Springsteen songs with strong women, but his wife is anything but submissive).

Posted by: Robin the Hood | May 7, 2005 9:22:22 PM

May I add that during the past three years, whenever I have talked about trying to enlarge the base by finding new voters among non-voters, or about making a more populist appeal, I've met fierce resistance from standard average Democratic Party pros, including but not limited to DLC types. (However, not especially from Matt, as I remember). When 40-50% of the electorate doesn't vote, it would seem that looking at that sector for votes is a non-brainer -- more than of looking to people who tend Republican, though we should do that too.

It is a fact that when Democrats lose, most Democratic pros still do OK, and I think that it is also true that some major elements in the Democratic Party (the Peretzes) are at least as hostile to the left wing Democrats as they are to Republicans, even conservative Republicans.

One of the reasons why I think that there should be a new media is that it would establish a career track for unabashed liberal Democrats. I strongly believe that many Democrats are as weenie as they are because they don't want to burn any bridges, in case they want to choose the Stephanopolous / Estrich track.

Posted by: John Emerson | May 7, 2005 9:30:30 PM

I'm sorry to be dense, but I'm having a hard time understanding in any precise way what "populism" here is supposed to be? Any help, Matthew?

Also, John Emerson, it's true you hear remarkably little about trying to turn non-voters into voters, presumably because of the truism that it is just so damn costly. But I would imagine one of the lessons to learn from Rove is that if you target carefully, even a marginal enlargement of the electorate (of those who vote, I mean) can really pay off. But that is all a matter of a particular candidate appealing to individual voters, more or less, or groups of them. I've seen some of Matt's colleagues at the Prospect, and maybe Matt himself, talking about more systematic efforts, like way lowering the cost of voting in terms of time and premeditated attention by getting rid of advance registration, as we in effect have in here in Minnesota (with same-day registration), or even just making registration opt-out rather than opt-in. I think the Prospect ran a piece on this as one of the potential upsides of a national i.d.

Posted by: Jeff L. | May 7, 2005 9:51:10 PM

You know, John Edwards was the son of a mill worker...

Posted by: Kiril | May 7, 2005 9:52:06 PM

Making voting easier rather than harder works for the Democrats. It's an example (along with corporate governance and media consolidation) of non-sexy wonk issues where Democrats have fallen down for decades while the Republicans were rewriting the rules.

Besides developing constituencies, getting the word out generally on key issues is important (what the Republican think tanks do so well.) A pretty good job has been done on social security, though that was an enormously bold move by the R's.

If the publicly available, widely-disseminated information on the inheritance tax and the bankruptcy bill had been more accurate, public opinion would be quite different on these issues. All most people know about the inheritance tax is the Republican slogans -- "death tax" and maybe "double taxation."

Posted by: John Emerson | May 7, 2005 9:59:52 PM

I think as the last cycle showed, relying on high turnout among people who don't traditionally vote is a very difficult, almost impossible way to win. On the other hand, when you take a vote from the other guy, he's down one and you're up one. I'd hope the Democrats would lead with appeals to the margins of Bush voters; the past couple of months have shown, vis a vis declining approval numbers, that they're not all dead-enders.

At the same time, I can't help but feel that all these discussions are moot if we can't find a candidate who can connect in a way Kerry and Gore did not. The fact is, none of us here know if Schweitzer is really as good a politician as people want to think he is. None of us know if Clark or Edwards can correct their fairly glaring problems as candidates, or if Hillary's absolute ceiling is 47 percent. The problem is, the current media environment, the utter lack of a unifying, effective, strategic vision on the part of anyone associated with the DNC, and the frontloaded-with-liberal-states primary system are all inefficient at giving us competitive candidates.

Maybe I'm simply a victim of GOP spin, but it's my hope that we would have a process next time that was closer to the Bush coronation in 1999-2000 than our primaries in 2000-2004. It's hard to introduce a candidate any other way and expect them to win.

Posted by: SamAm | May 7, 2005 10:14:26 PM

SamAm, as usual in the discussions I've had about this topic over the years with various sophisticated losing pros, you're talking about a last-minute election-year attempt to reach non-voters, perhaps with a charismatic candidate.

I'm talking about a year-in-year-out, multi-year attempt to find and develop constituencies within the non-voters (in addition to similiar attempts to split off voters from the other team.) In other words, I'm talking about the kind of thing that Rove and Norquist do, and that the Democrats don't do.

But thanks for reassuring me that th conventional wisdom is still alive.

Posted by: John Emerson | May 7, 2005 10:19:32 PM

Maybe I'm simply a victim of GOP spin, but it's my hope that we would have a process next time that was closer to the Bush coronation in 1999-2000 than our primaries in 2000-2004.

Huh??? The Bush Coronation had Bush vs McCain up to Michigan. In 2000 and 2004 it was pretty evident who was going to win (Gore/Kerry) after victories in both Iowa and New Hampshire. The Democratic nominee was much earlier effectively decided in both 2000 and 2004 than the Republican 2000 primaries.

Posted by: Dan the Man | May 7, 2005 10:21:45 PM

Oh yeah, FWIW, I think we're going to be going up against George Allen and some fairly palatable "moderate" Republican as VP. And all these discussions won't mean shit, 'cause Allen is simply Bush-redux and I don't know of any Democrat with the skills to beat his ass in a 2 horse race.

Look at Allen's career to see how the GOP closely shepherds the careers of their potential stars. We, by comparison, let our newborns get eaten by wolves.

Posted by: SamAm | May 7, 2005 10:23:53 PM

You should take a gander at Brian Schweitzer.

Posted by: Matt Taylor | May 7, 2005 10:24:09 PM

"At the same time, I can't help but feel that all these discussions are moot if we can't find a candidate who can connect in a way Kerry and Gore did not."

That's true, as is understanding the historical moment. The Democrats seem to be moving in the direction of libertarianism and federalism, while the GOP and the country seem to be moving in the opposite direction. The American people want political comfort food now, just as they did during the depression and second world war, and that means populism. There is of course a gaping wound in the center of Bush-style populism, which is of course its Orwellian assault on the safety net and economic stability of the middle class and working people, but telling people (a la Tom Friedman and the DLCers) they need to compete in a global economy and they can't have their debts wiped clean when they're working eighty hours a week just to get by, living in constant fear of losing their jobs to outsourcing, maxed out on their credit cards trying to cover basic necessities, not to mention terrified by the prospect of a collapse in housing prices and having some Arab fruitcake fly a plane into their office is just utterly insane. The essential American ambition for all things bigger and better will return (just as it did after the end of the second world war) but what people want now is stability, comfort, a slower pace of change, and peace of mind - even if that means paying higher taxes and not having all the freedoms they demanded in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It is astonishing to me just how few in Washington seem to get the whole picture.

Posted by: Robin the Hood | May 7, 2005 10:31:43 PM

You're saying that a populist wouldn't have much traction in the Democratic primary, given the balance of power within the party. I think a lot of people are confused and think you're saying that a populist, once he acquired the Democratic nomination, wouldn't represent the party well, which is a different thing.

Posted by: Cryptic Ned | May 7, 2005 10:32:39 PM

Thanks for the optimism, SamAm. You do sound like a pro. What I say don't mean shit because the Democrats aren't going to listen, but there must be some other reason in your case.

Posted by: John Emerson | May 7, 2005 10:33:20 PM

One of my several grudges against Kerry is the feeble response to the Swift Boat type slanders which were 110% sure to happen. It was like watching a blind man walking out into traffic. They seemed completely dumbfounded, and their main strategy was to hope that the issue would go away.

I spent the whole month of April trying to lay a foundation for responses to this kind of smear, as did Hesiod and a few other people. Someone in the Kerry campaign, Cahill I think, ordered the campaign people to completely ignore the internet stuff. Take the high road.

Posted by: John Emerson | May 7, 2005 10:40:07 PM

JE-

Clearly there has to be a two-pronged approach. We can't wait on whatever potential success the type of policy you mention may be, because that's a generational type of shift when there are elections every 2 years. But obviously, end of election tactics alone are usually never going to be sweeping or sustainable enough to enact the type of change we want. I just don't want to see the two approaches misconstrued.

Dan, I think the rollout of Bush was pretty masterful, especially his positioning against both the excess of the Republicans in Congress (though of course he wasn't) and the fatigue that set in about Clinton (mostly created, of course, by Congress and the media). His path was cleared by agressive partisanship; he could take advantage of it at the same time disowning it. He didn't have to do the heavy lifting by himself, and was a better candidate because of it.


Posted by: SamAm | May 7, 2005 10:41:35 PM

Bush benefited from massive media complicity. That's why we need the half billion.

SamAm, I agree that a two-prong approach approach is what we need. Since the prong you've been identified with so far (going for the marginal voter during the election year) is already heavily institutionalized, does your agreement mean that you're going to switch your energies and advocacy to the neglected prong (long-term development of new constituencies)? If so, great.

Posted by: John Emerson | May 7, 2005 10:48:17 PM

Thanks for the optimism, SamAm. You do sound like a pro.
I second that. I point out how the entire 2000 Bush coronation description was bogus. He responds by saying "Dan" and then talks about something else. I wonder if he gets paid working on Saturday nights?

Posted by: Dan the Man | May 7, 2005 10:51:55 PM

Actually, I meant that he sounded like a Democratic Party pro. But those are harsh words in my language.

Posted by: John Emerson | May 7, 2005 10:53:24 PM

Perhaps it's time for a Springsteen-style populism which is certifiably pro-working-man and unabashedly American, but isn't so implicitly noxious toward gays (he did after all write the theme song to Philadelphia), immigrants (think: the Ghost of Tom Joad), and women (okay, so I can't think of too many Springsteen songs with strong women, but his wife is anything but submissive).

Forget Springsteen-style populism, maybe its time for Springsteen. If California can elect Schwartzenegger why can't we elect Springsteen. The man is articulate and he is the working man. As for strong women, they permeate his early work--they are the adults to the adolescent male leads.

Posted by: Freder Frederson | May 7, 2005 11:08:42 PM

Making voting easier rather than harder works for the Democrats. It's an example (along with corporate governance and media consolidation) of non-sexy wonk issues where Democrats have fallen down for decades while the Republicans were rewriting the rules.

I'm with Mr Emerson on this stuff.

Kerry is the feeble response to the Swift Boat type slanders which were 110% sure to happen. It was like watching a blind man walking out into traffic.

Exactly right. We can and should sit around and micro-wonk, but there are some much more basic problems, the solutions to which would yield big dividends. Case in point, you could argue that the Swift Bilge stuff lost Kerry the election: people simply will not vote for someone who won't fight back. People care a lot more about that kind of stuff than they do most 'wonk' stuff (isn't that obvious by now?). Recognizing that doesn't make you a shitty hack; that is, it's stiill optional to be a shitty hack.

Posted by: jonnybutter | May 7, 2005 11:13:18 PM

Robin the Hood:

Democrats seem to be moving in the direction of libertarianism and federalism, while the GOP and the country seem to be moving in the opposite direction

The Rebpublicans are moving away from Libertarianism, but toward Federalism. The scope and power of the Federal government has grown significantly under Bush.

Posted by: epistemology | May 7, 2005 11:36:30 PM

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