Who’s Afraid of a Populist Party?
Could a populist political party be good for America? Jon Chait points to some fascinating data that suggests it would appeal to the views of many Americans:
The most thorough breakdown of the electorate is Pew’s voter typology survey, last conducted in 2005, which categorizes voters into nine basic groups. The overwhelming finding of this research is that the components of both electoral coalitions are far less libertarian than their parties — the GOP coalition has a lot of hawkish or socially conservative voters who favor more economic activism, and the Democratic Party has a lot of social conservatives who are skeptical of immigration and gay marriage […]
Practically speaking, the libertarian vote is non-existent, while the opposite viewpoint — economically liberal and socially conservative, which some call populist — is quite large. This fact tends to get lost in the political discussion because the political discussion is run by elites who are far closer to libertarianism than the public as a whole.
Chait seems to conflate two things under the heading of “economic activism.” A look at the data suggests that distrust of big business is a much bigger force among moral conservatives than faith in government action. They favor expanded regulations on big banks, not a bigger social-safety net. Even though I find his libertarian-populist opposition unconvincing, Chait is clearly on to something.
Both political parties are happy enough to be at least superficially responsive to this morally conservative, anti-big business “populist” bloc. As any libertarian will tell you, elites in both parties are ready enough to disavow their libertarian-ish views when it’s politically convenient. Just look at President Obama’s stated (if doubtfully sincere) opposition to gay marriage.
Even if both parties are happy to court populist voters, these voters — and our whole political system — still arguably suffer because populists lack what Chait calls an “intellectual infrastructure.” If populists had their own intellectual institutions and party leadership, it’s possible to imagine America’s populist energies being channeled in a more sustained and, possibly, constructive way. A populist party with its own intellectual institutions could develop a principled, policy-oriented populism that would offer its own solutions to our most pressing problems. Then we might see more pieces of smart legislation and fewer cynical plays for the votes of an otherwise unrepresented group.
Of course, there would be big hurdles. A successful populist party would have to foster a grounded creativity that rejected conspiracy theories as well as old dogmas. Then, as Noah Millman has pointed out, there’s the issue of where the funding would come from. One sign of hope comes from our friends at the Front Porch Republic, who are already in the process of setting up a political action committee. If they manage to succeed, our whole political process could start looking a little healthier.