Troubled Ties: The Clintons and populism

January 6, 2014

What’s behind the sudden outburst of populism in the Democratic Party?

Partly the weak economic recovery. Most economic indicators have turned positive — economic growth is up, unemployment down, the housing market is in recovery. But ordinary Americans are not feeling it. In last month’s CNN poll, two thirds of Americans said the nation’s economy was poor. More than half expect it to remain poor a year from now.

People at the top of the income ladder have been raking in the money while wage growth for working Americans has stagnated. That’s a recipe for a populist explosion.

Remember the “Occupy Wall Street” movement that started in 2011 and spread across the country? Most pundits don’t believe it had any impact, especially compared with the Tea Party. They’re wrong. In a stroke of marketing genius, the Occupy movement introduced the phrase “1 Percent” into the nation’s political vocabulary. That’s what defeated the Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. Romney was Mr. 1 Percent.

The Occupy movement won a big victory with the election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York in November. De Blasio’s issue was the growing economic inequality that’s painfully visible in New York City: gleaming new condominiums for the very rich alongside deep and increasing poverty.

“We are called,” De Blasio said in his inaugural address on Wednesday, “to put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love.”

What made it work for De Blasio was simple: his predecessor. Forbes magazine lists former Mayor Michael Bloomberg as the second-richest person in New York City. He does not have a populist bone in his body. That created the opportunity for de Blasio to ride to victory. De Blasio was the un-Bloomberg.

The opposite of populism is elitism — the belief that the people in charge know what they are doing and can be trusted. Bloomberg was the consummate elitist. His governing principle seemed to be, “Trust us. We know what we’re doing. And we know what’s good for you.”

But elitism is not the norm in the United States. The norm is distrust of elites.

Actually, there are two versions of populism in the United States. Economic populism is left wing. Social populism is right wing. Both are anti-elitist.

But they are aimed at different elites. Economic populism is aimed at the elite of wealth — Romney. Social populism is aimed at the elite of education — Barack Obama.

Sometimes the two populisms go together. They did in the person of William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1896, 1900 and 1908. Bryan was an economic radical. (“You shall not crucify mankind upon a Cross of Gold.”) But he was also a fierce critic of evolution and defender of the fundamentalist faith at the Scopes trail. (“If the Bible had said that Jonah swallowed the whale,” Bryan said in that 1925 trial, “I would believe it.”)

Today the two strains of populism have separated. Democrats embrace economic populism. De Blasio paid tribute to that tradition in his inaugural address when he linked himself to the great New York Democrats of the New Deal era — Al Smith, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frances Perkins — “who blazed a trail of progressive reform and political action, who took on the elite.”

Republicans now embrace social populism. President Richard M. Nixon folded racial backlash voters into the Republican Party with his “Southern strategy” in the 1970s. Ronald Reagan added religious conservatives in the 1980s.

For most of the last 50 years, social populism trumped economic populism as Republicans won election after election on social issues. That ended in 2012, which was a straight fight between the two elites — Romney the candidate of wealth and Obama the candidate of education.

Is economic populism the future of the Democratic Party? The Clintons seem to think so. Bill Clinton swore de Blasio into office and spoke at his inaugural. Hillary Clinton was an honored guest. Though de Blasio fashions himself a populist, the new mayor is really the model of a progressive Democrat. He lives, for example, in Park Slope, a gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood bursting with young urban professionals.

That’s the white liberal base of the Democratic Party — and it has always been a bit suspicious of the Clintons. If Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016, she needs to fend off a challenge from the left. De Blasio can help her do it.

What makes economic populism a risk for Democrats is that it comes with a fatal flaw: big government. Embedded in the populist tradition is a belief in limited government. Every effort to promote economic populism — notably, the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society of the 1960s — ends up looking like a big government program and risks setting off a fierce anti-government backlash. That’s what the Reagan Revolution was all about.

The latest example: Obamacare, which expands access to healthcare but has also fueled a Tea Party revolt.

For more than a century, the central dilemma of the left has been figuring out a way to promote economic equality without expanding government. Serious social democrats say you can’t. All you can do is ensure that big government is democratically controlled.

Bill Clinton, who took office when the Reagan Revolution was still raging, famously declared “the era of big government is over.” That statement rankled liberals — but it enabled Democrats to survive.

Both Bill and Hillary Clinton are deeply sympathetic to the wave of economic populism sweeping the Democratic Party. But they also understand its dangers.

It was President Clinton, after all, who rescued the Democratic Party once before.


PHOTO (TOP): New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio waves to attendees after arriving at his formal inauguration ceremony on the steps of City Hall in New York on January 1, 2014. Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are on the left. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

PHOTO (INSERT 1): New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Diana Taylor pose on arrival at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Benefit celebrating the opening of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty in New York, May 2, 2011. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

PHOTO (INSERT 2): President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevlet Presidential Library.

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