Posts Tagged ‘Populism’

Sirota Illustrates the Folly of Populism

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

I had a feeling I was going to see this chart at Open Left sooner or later:

On the issue at hand here, trade, I’m rather ambivalent. I’m pretty much a “free trader,” but at the same time I’d like to use our economic position to leverage our trading partners into improving their labor, environmental, and quality control standards. We’ve certainly been to lax with China in this regard. So take that for what it’s worth.

On the other hand, this graph really should, once and for all, demolish the idea that the populace is all that in tune with political issues, or has some inherent wisdom at gauging these things. Indeed, it proves thatthe movement among the masses is largely based on raw emotion. You see, for example, that when the economy was roaring in the mid and late 1990’s, free trade was extremely popular. And that makes sense; it meant cheap goods made in other countries, and let you buy a lot more stuff to clutter up your house. And with things moving a long at an historically good pace, no one was really worried about much of anything. But when the economy starts to come down, so do people’s opinion of trade. Now people are losing their job, and blaming “outsourcing,” which means more people are worried about outsourcing, on top of just being more stressed out in general. This makes trade a much more unappealing notion, and increases protectionist sentiment.

And without passing judgment on which side of the question is right, this is highly irrational behavior. And irrational behavior is a bad bet to hitch your fortunes to. It can be harnessed in the short term if you wish, but once the worm turns, what are yoy going to do? What is Sirota going to do when the economy recovers and “trade” is overwhelmingly popular again? Not only can he not cite populist opinion anymore, he can’t justify his own position once he’s accepted the notion that that is the basis of wisdom.

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Just Say No To Populism Cont’d

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

Backing up the idea that left-wing populism can only reinforce right-wing populism, and put progressives who embrace it into an unteneable position, check out this amazing post from Sirota on J.D. Hayworth’s anti-semitism:

First, let me say up front, I agree with the principle voiced by the Prospect. From Henry Ford to Father Coughlin to Pat Buchanan, there are ample examples of right-wing populism either melding with or becoming straight-up anti-semitism (and, more generally xenophobia). And I think that Hayworth’s veneration of Ford’s anti-semitism is, well, pretty clearly anti-semitic unto itself.

However, Hayworth’s specific comments aside, charges of anti-semitism are serious – and you need more to prove that is what’s going on than references to “elites” or even to George Soros.* And I say this as a Jew who gets lots of hate mail. Most of that hate mail comes from the sender’s hatred of my progressive ideology, and some of it is explicitly anti-semitic. I’d be absurd, though, to say that all of my hate mail is anti-semitic just because it is addressed to me, a Jewish person.

The fact is, the Wall Street elite destroyed our economy. Believing that fact and voicing it through the rhetoric of populism doesn’t make somebody “anti-semitic” just because there happen to be Jews working on Wall Street, or even if the person voicing outrage happens to mention the names of wrongdoers who happen to be Jewish (like, say, Bernie Madoff). Likewise, a group of very powerful conservative ideologues in the Pentagon and in the neo-conservative think tank world pushed the country to war. That’s a fact – and believing it or voicing anger about it doesn’t make somebody anti-semitic, just because some of those ideologues happen to be Jewish, or even if the person voicing anger mentions the names of some people who happen to be Jewish.

Of course he’s right, but that’s what makes this such an absurd post. No one is going to dispute the idea that criticizing bankers or Iraq war proponents makes you anti-semitic because some of them happen to be Jewish, so the fact that Sirota has to devolve to this canard really let’s the cat out of the bag early. Moreover, that’s not really what Hayworth did, he actually denigrated Soros as a “currency manipulator,” and Sirota even ackowledges that he finds this to be anti-semitic.

Rather, what’s happening here is what will always happen when progressives embrace populism; you set the ball rolling, and the right-wing will jump in to ratchet up the rage and play off the resentiment. What Sirota’s obviously doing is defending himself, since he’s been so critical of Wall Street in overt populist language. And obviously Sirota is not an anti-semite, and there’s nothing anti-Semitic in anything I’ve ever seen him write. But that’s not the point; the point is that it’s Sirota’s brand of left-wing populism that lays the groundwork for racist, anti-semitic, know nothing right-wing populists to enter the “grassroots” discussion, and once that happens the left simply can’t win a race to the bottom. And they get left mounting quasi defenses of racists in order to defend their populism to boot.

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Just Say No To Populism Cont’d

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

Following up yesterday’s post on the populism folly, Sirota himself comes out with a line of thinking that pretty clearly sums up why progressives should unambiguously oppose populist appeals:

In the 2008 Republican primary, we saw the rise of the economic populist wing of the GOP through Mike Huckabee. This faction has started making waves in Congress, too – many Republicans voted against the bank bailout, and there were at a few Republican-backed amendments aimed at forcing stimulus money to be spent on specific projects in the United States, and not on job outsourcing (Sanders-Grassley was one of them). And now, Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham is endorsing bank nationalization.

In other words, if the Democrats don’t embrace their populist wing, they will find the Republicans trying to outflank them on some hot-button economic issues like trade, outsourcing, and economic patriotism.

Let’s be clear about this; Mike Huckabee’s economic populism was his embrace of the so-called fair tax, and trafficing in the idea that this would shut down the dreaded IRS forever. This was always, of course, total nonsense; the Fair Tax is a highly regressive national sales tax that would put the bulk of the tax burden on the working class, and as long as you collect taxes you can’t eliminate the IRS. To the extent that you could get rid of the specific agency, someone has to collect federal taxes and see that the tax laws are enforced, so some other area of government would simply pick up the IRS’s job. It was, in other words, exactly what the GOP is good at; taking a policy that will disproportionately hurt workers and help the rich wrapped up in folksy sensibilities and sold as a populist measure. Progressives shouldn’t be trying to “outflank” that, they should be rebutting it, if for no other reason than the fact that they simply can’t win a race to the bottom with the Republican Party.

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Just Say No to Populism

Monday, February 16th, 2009

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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