Populism: Take The Good, Lose The Ugly

There are moments in American history when "the people," those who work hard, pay taxes, and raise families, appear to lift a righteous fist at the powerful forces that control their lives. This is one of those times.

Turn on the radio, check out the Internet, or listen to congressional debates on C-Span, and it becomes immediately clear that the language of populism has become the lingua franca of our society. Listen to the voices of America: There are angry words against government bureaucrats, Wall Street bankers, immigrants, Big Business, welfare cheats, and liberal elites. The fear and anxiety are real.

But are the Prophets of Populism, the spokespeople for the movement, correct in how they are representing the concerns of the vast majority of Americans? Are the proposals being offered in Congress sensible, pragmatic solutions to real-life problems of working men and women, or are there other agendas at work reflecting special interests or extremist ideologues? If the latter is true, the opportunity to repair the governance of American society will be squandered.

Populism has been part of the American social fabric since the days of Thomas Jefferson. Whenever there is vast economic change, be it the switch from agriculture to industry in the 1890s or from industry to information in the 1990s, Americans rebel. But they don't revolt. Americans protest not against the entire political system, just against the special interests that appear to be running it; not against society per se, just the forces that seem to be controlling the people.


Today, much of the populist rebellion is directed against big government. To many in the middle class, government appears out of control, bloating itself to enormous proportions, absorbing an ever-increasing amount of tax dollars. As incomes stagnate and health and pension benefits shrink in the private sector, the middle class watches a growing army of state and local government employees come away with fatter paychecks and richer benefits year after year. As they work harder to ward off the specter of downward mobility, the middle class watches a welfare culture take hold, where generation after generation of irresponsible people have children and are supported by the state.

Properly harnessed by responsible politicians, populism can lead to new policies and a better life. Manipulated by false prophets, however, populism can degenerate into racism, nativism, and isolationist trade policies that could lead to serious recession. Our greatest challenge is to harness the power of populism into realistic, constructive policies supported by the vast majority of Americans. That is what happened with earlier populist movements. That would be ideal today.

The new populist tide has been slowly building. Over the past 30 years, three colossal waves have washed over the nation's families, tearing them loose from their moorings. First, government began to fail them. Critical services--schools and safe streets--deteriorated sharply, while the cost of government rose dramatically. The total tax burden, including federal, state, local, Social Security, and Medicare taxes, grew heavier with each passing year.


Over precisely the same period, economic insecurity swept the nation. Rapid technological change and globalization ended lifetime employment. Economic growth slowed. Incomes stagnated. The erosion of highly paid blue-collar jobs and the eviseration of white-collar employment that followed had a profound political effect. The destruction of corporate middle management was particularly painful. Downsizing and restructuring pushed millions of middle-class people out of the cocoon of Big Business institutions into the harsh world of small enterprise. To their dismay, they found that government was once again a tremendous burden and obstacle, with its endless regulation of their every business activity.

Then came the immigrants. It is no coincidence that the great populist movement of 100 years ago developed, in part, in reaction to the last great immigration wave to the U.S. Something very similar is happening a century later. During the 1980s and 1990s, Americans have faced growing competition for jobs and business not only from surging imports but from massive numbers of new immigrants. Accommodation fatigue set in. Absorbing so many people in a period of economic distress proved difficult at best. Social-service costs, particularly for refugees and illegal immigrants, soared in gateway states such as California and New York.

The New Populists have succeeded in capturing much of society's current rage, but their stew of solutions for today's maladies contains the good, the bad, and the ugly. Populism today, as it has in the past, encompasses those who hate "cosmopolitans," immigrants, free trade, Wall Street, the poor, and big corporations. If this snarling-dog faction has its way, the U.S. will devolve into a society that few middle-class Americans would recognize or want to live in.

The moderate middle has always been where the majority of Americans live, and that is where the New Populists must head if they are to succeed. Programs that make government more productive and less costly are what is needed--not only in Washington but at state and local levels, too. Tough love on welfare reform that moves people into workfare and makes them responsible for themselves is required--but so is the cash for training and child care. Stopping the flow of illegal immigrants and those who hire them, and perhaps reducing the very high level of legal immigration while the country absorbs the current wave, is called for. Above all, leveling with the American public that it can't have lower taxes and generous government services at the same time is necessary to bring sanity back to the body politic. Sloganeering and hate-mongering are easy. Surely, they are not the best populism has to offer.

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