November 27, 2004

What's the Matter With Elitism?

Much of interest in Thomas Frank's long review of books on American culture wars. One quick point: I haven't actually read Frank's books, but it sounds like he reserves a special place behind the woodshed for those—like, ahem, me—who think economic elitism could actually be a winning message for the Dems:
Lebedoff reminds us that becoming the party of an economic and cultural elite isn't necessarily a winning move, since it only reinforces conservatives' efforts to position themselves as the populists in a redefined class war. ''A new class is growing,'' he writes, ''but the backlash against it is growing, too, and potentially involves a larger number of voters.''
Well it all depends on what you mean by "economic elitism". I for one have in mind some clever bit of reframing, like what Eliot Spitzer has proposed in The New Republic—tout market regulation as a means of making the market work more efficiently. Cool, huh? And frankly, it's hard to imagine a world in which cracking down on predatory lending leads to more class war.

Without getting too much into it right now (I'm about to head out the door), political gestures towards "economic populism" seem unlikely to succeed for two reasons: 1) It's too easy for the other party to "co-opt" your message—to most voters, even sweeping left-wing health care reforms can sound surprisingly similar to, say, health savings accounts; both vaguely aim to increase health coverage. Call this the "easily-duped median voter" theorem. Now 2) The doctrine of "economic self-sufficiency" is a big part of that right-wing culture Frank cites, making the usual liberal programs somewhat repugnant by their very nature. What economic populists seem to forget is that the New Deal wasn't popular just because it was populist. It was popular because there was a Great Depression going on, and that's obviously a special case.

Oh okay, I'll toss in reason number 3) Many of the best policies for the working class might not actually be popular among the working class. Deficit reduction and schemes to boost savings come to mind. And vice versa—many of the most popular policies may not, etc. Going protectionist, ala Gephardt, is an electoral strategy of dubious efficacy—it didn't seem to help Tennenbaum in South Carolina—but even if you do win an election this way, where does it end? Internecine trade disputes with Europe? Withdrawal from the WTO? A move back to the gold standard? The working class won't come out the big winner here. Worth worrying about.
-- Brad Plumer 11:35 PM || ||