Opinion

The Great Debate

Populism? Where are the pitchforks?

Americans are in a surly mood, confronting rules they feel are rigged against them. President Barack Obama captured this populist temper in his re-election campaign.  He then launched his second term declaring that inequality is the “most pressing challenge of our time,” and laying out a popular agenda to raise the federal minimum wage, provide pay equity for women, establish universal pre-school and other initiatives that polls show the public strongly supports.

Republican obstruction, however, has blocked progress on all these — even as the House GOP last week passed Representative Paul Ryan’s budget, which cuts taxes for the rich and corporations, turns Medicare into a voucher program, slashes spending on education and protects subsidies to Big Oil.

Yet it is the president’s popularity that has cratered. Republicans are expected to easily retain control of the House in the November midterm elections — though Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) refuses to move bills on any of the public’s agenda. The Democratic Senate majority appears endangered. Data maestro Nate Silver is making the Republicans favorites to take the Senate in the fall midterms.   The New York Times reports Democrats are “scrambling to avoid disaster.”

Why can Republicans block politically popular measures without paying a political cost? Is populism merely entertaining froth, all the rage in Berkeley salons but impotent in real-world politics?

In fact, populist sentiments are on the rise. But the stunted economic recovery — and big GOP money — makes it hard for Democrats to exploit them.  Disarray on message pulls the populist punch. All this, ironically, helps conservative candidates peddle their own populist poses, often confusing voters.

America: The anecdotal nation

In America today, anecdotes have become the new facts.

Consider Obamacare. Opponents have produced ads featuring apparently ordinary Americans telling stories about the travails forced upon them by the Affordable Care Act. One ad, financed by the Koch brothers, highlighted a leukemia sufferer named Julie Boonstra, who claimed that Obamacare had raised the cost of her medications so much that she was faced with death! Pretty dramatic stuff — except that numerous fact-checkers found she would actually save $1,200 under Obamacare.

But what are you going to believe — a sob story or a raft of statistics about the 7.5 million Americans who have signed up and the paltry 1 million folks who had policies canceled?

Or take global warming. Anecdotally speaking, conservatives have insisted that global warming must be a hoax because we have had such cold winters — never mind the scientists who have documented the Earth’s rising temperature. But what are you going to believe — the seasonal chill or the consensus of thousands of climate scientists whose data overwhelmingly support global warming?

Tea Party zealots hold the public debate hostage

This year’s contrived budget crisis is headed to its climax, as the date for defaulting on the nation’s debt approaches.

Washington’s budget debates are dizzying and incomprehensible. But at stake is what kind of country we will have. House Republican Tea Party zealots, backed by well-funded right-wing lobbies, continue to manufacture budget crises. They want to alarm Americans into accepting cuts in basic security — in food stamps, and home heating, in Social Security or Medicare benefits — that would otherwise be utterly unacceptable.

Lost in the uproar is any reasoned discussion of the real strategies we need to make this economy work for working people. It is vital that the president and the Democrats in Congress end this macabre dance and make it clear to people just what the stakes actually are. The measure of any compromise deal is whether it will crush the hostage-takers.

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