November 24, 2009

SINCE NIXON?:

Can populism be liberal?: The GOP has owned it since Nixon. Democrats would have to return to the New Deal to recapture it (Michael Lind, 11/24/09, Salon)

It is touching to watch progressives lament that "their" president has the wrong advisors. "We trust the czar, we simply dislike his ministers." Obama owed his meteoric rise from obscurity to the presidency not to any bold progressive ideas -- he didn't have any -- but rather to a combination of his appealing life story with the big money that allowed him to abandon campaign finance limits. According to one Obama supporter I know, the Obama campaign pressured its Wall Street donors to make their contributions in the form of many small checks, in order to create the illusion that the campaign was more dependent on small contributors than it was in fact. Even now President Obama continues to raise money on Wall Street, while his administration says no to every progressive proposal for significant structural reform of the financial industry.

There remains the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, represented more in Congress than in Obama's White House -- and more in the House than in the Senate, a dully complacent millionaires' club. Can congressional progressives compete with conservatives to channel popular outrage? Unfortunately, progressivism in the form in which it has evolved in the last generation does not resonate with populist producerism.

To begin with, most of the moral fervor of the contemporary center-left has been diverted from the issue of fair rewards for labor to the environmental movement. In theory, environmentalism ought to fit the populist narrative of defending shared goods against special interests. Indeed, clean air and water legislation and public parks and wilderness areas are broadly popular with working-class Americans, not least hunters and fishers. But many environmentalists insist that global warming must be combated not only by low-CO2 energy technology but also by radical lifestyle changes like switching from industrial farming to small-scale organic agriculture and moving from car-based suburbs and exurbs to deliberately "densified" cities with mass transit. Whether environmentalists propose to engineer this utopian social transformation by tax incentives or coercive laws, the campaign triggers the populist nightmare of arrogant social elites trying to dictate where and how ordinary people should live.

Even if it had not been eclipsed by moralistic lifestyle environmentalism, contemporary economic progressivism would be crippled by its own priorities. New Deal liberalism was primarily about jobs and wages, with benefits as an afterthought. Post-New Deal progressivism is primarily about benefits, with jobs and wages as an afterthought. This inversion of priorities is underlined by the agenda of the Democrats since the last election -- universal healthcare coverage first, jobs later.


Try, since at least McCarthy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 24, 2009 12:33 PM
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