Should Democrats Fear a Little Populism?

Is populism simply what the times call for, or is it going to sink the left?

By Nathan Pippenger

Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. The current Democratic President, who handily won a second term, has accomplished a long list of priorities important to both liberals (health-care reform, new Wall Street rules, stimulus spending, new rules on carbon emissions, and the promotion of gay rights) and centrists (education reform, deficit reduction, and the promotion of a compromise immigration reform). And the GOP, despite some likely gains this November, is facing down an unimpressive slate of 2016 presidential candidates and, more seriously, a long-term demographic crisis. So why is Politico dispensing advice on “how to save the Democratic Party from itself”?

The problem, according to Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, is a tempting-but-dangerous strain of populism simmering on the left wing of the Democratic Party, and threatening to boil over at any moment. At The Week, Ryan L. Cooper is incredulous, calling this a “bananas interpretation” of the facts. Marshall differs:

Populists err, however, in insisting that [reducing inequality] be the centerpiece of the Democrats’ agenda. Americans overwhelmingly put economic growth first because they believe, correctly, that growth is the precondition for restoring economic opportunity and fairness. A survey by the Global Strategy Group, a public affairs firm, that asked the public to rank its priorities found that 78 percent thought Congress should embrace a pro-growth agenda that benefits everyone. Reducing inequality received the least support.


What Americans now expect of their political leaders isn’t angry finger-pointing at malefactors of great wealth, but a positive plan for putting America back on a high-growth path to shared prosperity. Slow economic growth—averaging less than two percent of GDP since 2000—is our most urgent problem. We aren’t generating the national income we need to finance investment in the future, pay for the promises we’ve already made to retirees, sustain our global influence and leadership and maintain our high standard of living. In the absence of robust growth, the politics of wealth redistribution becomes an empty exercise in moral posturing, or worse, an all-against-all scramble for pieces of a shrinking pie.

I have to say, this seems backwards to me. Inequality, or at least the mutating, widening manifestation of it currently afflicting the United States, isn’t some secondary matter you take care of after seeing to economic growth. Combating inequality is a precondition of meaningful, sustained economic growth in the first place—as opposed to what we have now: a maddening situation in which 95 percent of the post-crash income gains (from 2009 to 2012) went to the top 1 percent of earners.

To object to that situation isn’t to demand that the 1 percent fork over its 95 percent of income gains so that the rest of us can “scramble” for a shrinking pie. That’s a far too static view. Yes, paying for some investments in economic growth would require a more progressive tax system, and by historical standards, we’re pretty far from that goal. And if we were really concerned about blunting the political manifestations of economic inequality (think Super-PAC contributors here), we could consider what Timothy Noah has (somewhat jokingly) called “soaking the rich”—which, in addition to loosening their stranglehold on national politicians, would buttress the emaciated resources that struggling Americans need to become prosperous and contribute to economic growth. That means more funding for schools, massive investments in the extremely promising area of pre-K education, infrastructure investment, and expanded college loans—just to name a few ideas.

The strange thing is: Marshall doesn’t seem too opposed to this agenda. While warning that “the party’s pragmatic wing should develop alternatives to an angry populism centered on top-down redistribution, knee-jerk hostility to the private sector, protectionism, innovation-stifling regulation and resistance to public sector reform,” in the next breath he admits the need for a minimum wage hike, a crackdown on financiers’ tax loopholes, and stronger Wall Street regulation.

These, of course, are prominent populist items on the Democrats’ agenda (although sadly, they may not be the most effective ways to reduce inequality). But if these steps are acceptable, then what’s the problem? Tone, apparently: “with its dominant motif of outrage, class grievance, and victimhood,” Marshall warns, the populist agenda “aims mainly at core partisans. It repels many moderate swing voters.” I suppose we should take that as good news. As long as progressives keep smiling, they have few excuses for shying away from desperately needed reforms.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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