The Failure of Populism?

Populist Appeals Don't Work When They Aren't Tried


A wise man once asked: If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? So pundits should ask: If politicians don't have a populist message, and thus no one hears it, does that mean it would be ineffective?

In the wake of the last election, the media establishment has concluded that a populist message highlighting class issues like wages, fair trade policy, universal health care and protecting well-paying jobs is now somehow unappealing to voters. One headline recently blared, "Voters' Values -- Not Income -- Determine Political Affiliation." As this brilliant theory goes, voters have decided that pocketbook issues like wages, health care, and housing affordability are suddenly not important, while so-called social "values" like abortion and gun control now fully determine voting preferences. The Washington punditry asserts that because lower income people now vote more Republican and higher income people vote more Democratic, economic issues are insignificant. Sorry folks, the pundits say, when it comes to politics, you just don't care as much about your wallet anymore. One pundit flatly stated that the choice for voters today is "Do you vote your pocketbook or your moral conscience?"

There's just one problem with this malarkey: Since when was your pocketbook -- a.k.a. your ability to provide a decent standard of living for you and your family -- not a moral issue? Ever since our leaders abandoned an economic message.

Sure, social issues might be a factor in voting -- but they are determining factors only in an age where politicians purposely avoid the tough economic issues that challenge the powers that be. Yes, low-income whites have abandoned the Democratic party in droves in the last decade. But, during the same time, many Democratic politicians abandoned low-income whites by suppressing an economic message in favor of appeals to upper-income suburbanites. Even in today's tax debate, many timid politicians are afraid to really hammer Bush for offering a plan that gives most of the benefits to the richest 1% of the population. For some reason, they fear being attacked for waging "class warfare," even when it is Bush who is waging the class warfare with his plan to redistribute wealth up the income ladder. Is it any wonder why such flaccid politics have failed to build a Democratic majority these last eight years?

Today, our economy is slowing down and layoffs are mounting. During the last decade, income gaps have accelerated. This means that economic security is a more -- not less -- significant concern for voters. What has become insignificant is not economic issues, but the differences between the two parties' desire to address those issues.

Republicans have never wanted to deal with issues of economic justice. (Some would argue that their trickle-down economics have masked a preference for injustice.) Democrats, on the other hand, once did have a progressive economic agenda. But in an age of money-drenched politics, they too have been increasingly co-opted by the same corporate agenda that control the Republicans. The only difference is that corporate Democrats try to call themselves "moderate" while Republicans just call themselves "conservative." For a socially conservative worker whose main concern is pocketbook issues, there really is no difference. Increasingly, the decision for that worker on election day has been to vote for a Republican who is unappealing on economic issues but slightly appealing on social issues over a Democrat who is unappealing in both areas. That same worker used to emphatically vote for the Democrats when the Democrats' message was based on economic populism. The difference today is not the voter -- it's the abandonment of the message.

David Sirota is a veteran campaign aide and progressive activist.

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