Why Populism Fails

Noting a recent speech by President Obama that had populist overtones–and the near-unqualified endorsement of that speech by Paul Krugman–Clive Crook reminds us that there are limits to the political power of populism:

To be more exact, the difficulty lies with an excess of populism — which is what Krugman and others recommend for the Democrats and what the Tea Party wants to impose on Republicans. In healthy democracies, a diluted dose of populism is vital for any political project or party, liberal or conservative. Even technocrats have to get elected, and if they feel no empathy for ordinary voters, they had better fake some. But modern voters are offended by too much populism. As they should be, because it insults their intelligence.

Populism comes in different flavors but generally involves reducing politics to a struggle between a long-suffering virtuous majority (us) and an objectionable minority (them). There are many variants: the people against immigrants, against foreigners, against the idle poor, against intellectuals, against criminals. In the U.S., liberal populism frames politics mainly as a struggle between working people and the rich. Conservative populism sees mainly a struggle between citizens yearning to be free and an overreaching federal government.

Neither of these views, by the way, is absurd. Democracies make choices about the distribution of income. The question of what the rich owe everybody else deserves an answer. How the rich got to be rich is another good question — was it through effort and enterprise, or through inheritance, market-rigging or mugging the taxpayer?

“Don’t tread on me” is an equally intelligible sentiment. In the U.S., the federal government presumes a great deal, especially if you take the 10th Amendment seriously. And you don’t need to be a constitutional originalist to be startled by the National Security Agency’s notion of “reasonable search.”

Restrained populism serves a valid purpose: It simplifies complex issues for voters’ consideration, and puts the populist on the side of the majority. Obama’s speech was far more restrained — that is, better — than Krugman’s endorsement would lead you to expect. The them-and-us theme was in there, but Obama gave lifting up the disadvantaged far more attention than hammering the undeserving rich. The president’s lack of stomach for an assault on plutocrats is why many progressives have found him so disappointing.

The true populist, in contrast, simplifies without mercy, and pledges to govern the same way. Strident populism deals in caricature, and most voters know it.

Inequality is the quintessential liberal-populist theme. The rise in U.S. inequality raises questions that need to be addressed. But the idea that reducing inequality alone is more important than reducing poverty, improving opportunity at the bottom and restoring growth in middle-class living standards is wrong. Worse (in political terms), it’s implausible.

Read it all. I suppose that it would be churlish of me to remind readers–especially those enamored with liberal populism’s supposed ability to create a lasting electoral/governing coalition and change policy for the better–that many of the same people extolling liberal populism as the wave of the future were/are the same people telling us that Obamacare will work just fine any day now.

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