Matt Bai’s strange populism
Most Democrats, after all, persist in embracing populism as it existed in the early part of the last century — that is, strictly as a function of economic inequality. In this worldview, the oppressed are the poor, and the oppressors are the corporate interests who exploit them.
But, according to Bai, populism today “is not principally about the struggling worker versus his corporate master.”
Though progressives have won some important victories over the past 30 years, they have not been able to restore the vigorous, anti-corporate tenor of their old populist appeals. Organized labor — whose “horny-handed producers” once railed against “the money power” — continues its long decline. Most citizens no longer draw their political views from their attitudes about their work and their employers.
That populism is no longer a response to exclusively economic grievances doesn’t bother me. Any Democrat who actually believed the simplicity that “old” populism was simply a “function of economic inequality” in which “the oppressed are the poor, and the oppressors are the corporate interests who exploit them” had a very narrow lesson in turn-of-the-century populism. There has always been a cultural component, which, at its worst, came out in anti-Semitic or xenophobic views, but at its most benign took on East Coast media, the political establishment and Ivy League elites. Assuming actual bigotry can be weeded out, I’ve never had a problem with hybrid Left-Right populism – one that aims most of its ire at an economic elite with more than a little snark left over for a cultural elite; one that condemns the hedonistic ‘70s and the dollar-chasing ‘80s in the same train of thought.
But the prospect that this “new” populism can exist without a resentment (or at best, with a very watered-down resentment) of private sector greed is truly scary. Both Bai and Kazin agree that economic changes of the past century have complicated the average American’s view of corporations and Wall Street:
In recent decades… as technology has reshaped the economy, more and more Americans have gone to work for smaller or more decentralized employers, or even for themselves, while government has exploded in size and influence.
And at a time when nearly half of all Americans own stocks, a certain ambivalence dilutes the strength of the assaults on Wall Street that returned with the financial debacle of 2008. We resent these fallen wizards for wrecking our economy — but rely on them to make it healthy again.
To make matters worse, Bai’s conclusion that the “only viable brand of populism” is now “the individual versus the institution,” isn’t populism at all, but libertarianism – in most ways, populism’s ideological opposite. Populism has now been so de-fanged of its economic agenda that it has become little more than a kind of nebulous anti-elite, Down With Big Things resentment – indistinguishable from the Tea Party movement which, despite its popular image, is still motivated more by Ayn Rand than James Weaver. This is easy enough to see in the muddled response Tea Party activists and candidates have taken to the BP oil spill, betraying a discomfort with demonizing a corporation that they never seem to have when demonizing government.
Finally, Bai’s declaration that “old anticorporate populism” is “a beat behind the times” strikes me as a sentiment that is itself a beat behind the times, something that might’ve sounded novel when Al From offered it circa 1988, but doesn’t sound particularly groundbreaking today. The questions that need to be ironed out are not questions of whether populism extends outside the purely economic realm of haves and have-nots (which it always has), but rather the question of whether or not that realm still exists at all. If not, it might be a lot of things, but it really can’t be considered populism.