Opinion

The Great Debate

Populism: The Democrats’ great divide

One day after President Barack Obama called for moving forward on trade authority in his State of the Union address, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared, “I am against fast track,” and said he had no intention of bringing it to a vote in the Senate.

Reid’s announcement came after 550 organizations, representing virtually the entire organized base of the Democratic Party outside of Wall Street, called on Congress to oppose fast track. Though obscured by the Democrats’ remarkable unity in drawing contrasts with the Tea Party-dominated Republicans in Congress, the debate between an emerging populist wing of the Democratic Party and its still-dominant Wall Street wing is boiling.

For a constantly disputatious “big tent” party, Democrats are remarkably unified behind the jobs and inequality agenda the president ticked off in his State of the Union address — raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, paycheck fairness for women, paid family leave, investment in infrastructure, education and research and development, and an “all of the above” energy strategy. Republicans block action on all these relatively modest reforms, providing ammunition for Democrats in the November midterm elections.

But beneath this surface calm, there is a growing divide within the Democratic Party over what might be considered the tectonic plates of our political economy, a debate that has only begun to surface. Here are some of the core divisions:

Passive or Active Voice Populism

Since Occupy Wall Street, inequality has been Topic A, hardly surprising in an economy where the top 1 percent is capturing 95 percent of the income growth coming out of the Great Recession. The president weighed in, calling inequality the “defining challenge of our time.”

‘Democratic wing’ of Democratic Party takes on Wall Street

The chattering classes are fascinated by the Republicans’ internecine battle to redefine the party in the wake of the George W. Bush calamity and the Mitt Romney defeat — from Senator Rand Paul’s revolt against the neoconservative foreign policy, to intellectuals flirting with “libertarian populism.” Less attention has been paid, however, to the stirrings of what Senator Paul Wellstone dubbed “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” — now beginning to challenge the Wall Street wing of the party.

Perhaps the strongest demonstration of this was the barrage of “friendly fire” that greeted the White House’s trial balloon on nominating Lawrence Summers to head the Federal Reserve Bank. More than one-third of Democrats in the Senate signed a letter supporting Janet Yellen, now vice chairwoman of the Fed. More than half of the elected Democratic women in the House of Representatives signed a similar letter. Many were appalled at the notion of passing over the superbly qualified Yellen for Summers, with his notorious record of denigrating and dismissing women.

But, as Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation wrote in the Washington Post, Summers also drew opposition because he was the “poster boy for the Wall Street wing of the party — literally.” (Summers joined then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan on the now risible 1999 Time magazine cover celebrating the “Committee to Save the World” — before the global financial collapse exposed the folly of their policies).

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