Just Say No to Populism

The Kansas City Star has a worrying article (and not just because it quotes Sirota extensively) about the rise of left-leaning economic populism that really ought to worry progressives concerned with the long run health of the country.

Without getting too much into the crux of the article, which uses the issue of CEO compensation caps to examine America’s populist tendency, let me say that the problem with liberal economic policy is that it necessarily reinforces conservative populism, particularly on “cultural issues.” The “beauty,” for lack of a better word, of conservative populist appeals is that they’ve managed to structure it such that it doesn’t actually impede their elite-friendly economic policies. Indeed, it enhances them. Limbaugh, Hannity, and the gang have turned the appeals to God, Guns, and Gays, and the anti-intellectualism of the right into appeals on “keeping your money in your pocket” and trickle down economics. The result is a horde of working class white males who can be counted on to support economic ideas that disproportionately benefit the upper class.

By contrast, left oriented populism just can’t do that. To the extent populism relies on the notion of the supremacy of the little guy and his values, you just can’t turn explicit populist economic appeals into a respect for social tolerance and equality unless those things already exist, because you’re arguing against yourself. On the one hand you’re building a guy up, on the other hand you’re telling him his values and beliefs are all wrong. Nor can you then extol the value of learned experts in a field. In this sense, the right’s real advantage is simply their ability to lie with ease, and to play on an intuitive anti-tax populist belief to spread an outright lie that “Reaganomics” creates broad prosperity or awesome economic outcomes. The answer to that isn’t more populism, it’s a more educated populous with a better understanding of economics.

And then there’s the more inconvenient fact of left leaning populism, sometimes the populists just can’t help but to grab onto some good old cultural resentiment. You’re in the minority? Everyone’s a sell out. Can’t get someone to agree with you? They’re in bed with the elite. Expert opinion goes against you? Fuck ’em. After all, it wasn’t Rush Limbaugh who said that we were all economic experts because we all live in the economy.

Update: See DDay as well.

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