February 23, 2005

Populism Revisited

I haven't heard anyone ask what's wrong with the Democrats in a good three or four hours, so I'm glad I chanced upon Harold Meyerson's column explaining that Dems need to, of all things, win back the white working-class vote. Shocking:
Democrats win when they deliver prosperity and security for working Americans, and in today's capitalism, those have become increasingly unattainable goals. Which is why, as they only now gear up their think tanks, Democrats need to promote alternatives to the kind of shareholder-driven capitalism into which our system has descended, to the detriment of millions of underpaid, insecure workers. They need to side with Main Street over Wall Street. Like the conservatives 40 years ago, the Democrats need to offend their own elites to build an America that reflects their best values, and in which working people can and do count on them for support.
As an arch-organizational philosophy, I could stomach this. But no one ever seems to be able to explain what "sid[ing] with Main Street over Wall Street" would actually look like. Does it mean bundling together a bunch of obscure and somewhat wonky rules and regulations to check corporate excess—governance reform, energy regulation, etc. Color me skeptical on the politics of this. Who gets excited over Sarbanes-Oxley?

Or, do Dems take one particularly poignant issue, like predatory lending, and beat on it till the cows stop mooing? Again, how exciting is this? I'm all in favor of bringing back usury laws and having federally mandated lending rates—on the merits, that would help reduce a good deal of bankruptcy and debt in this country—but it's not the sort of thing I'm going to jump up on stage with and rally the working class crowds.

Or do Dems take "sid[ing] with Main Street" literally, taking a knee-jerk and rather strident stance against all corporations, even if they don't really mean it? Bash the insurance companies providing overly high malpractice premiums! String up Choice Point and other credit-rating clearinghouses! Kill, kill, kill! Hm, I like it, but there's this: one of the key polling points I've seen of late is that most Americans don't believe Democrats favor pro-growth policies for America. That seems like a real problem to me—and maybe there's a long-term battle to be fought wherein Dems convince everyone that economic growth isn't all its cracked up to be, but hey, even I would need convincing—and snarling at corporations would only fuel that perception.

Hm, what else? I'm not saying Meyerson's vision is unworkable—coming up with this stuff is hard work!—just trying to think through the possibilities. Personally, I'm against "economic populism" as a political strategy. I prefer something along the lines of Eliot Spitzer's outlook on things: use regulation to correct market failures and get the capitalist system working more efficiently. That's a cumbersome message, but speechwriters can have at it. Also, I'd prefer a set of policies that reduced "economic risk" while promoting more of the sort of risk-taking that makes capitalism so marvelously vibrant. For instance, universal health care would help cushion your family against a job loss, but it would also encourage you to move jobs, relocate, seek a bold new career for which you might be more suited, without being chained down by the fear that comes with switching jobs and possibly losing your coverage. The end result, in theory, is a more dynamic economic world. What's more: It's populist, but it doesn't sound populist.

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-- Brad Plumer 4:12 AM || ||