Populism only gets you so far.

Catch of the Day: False Promise of Economic Populism

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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A Catch to Matt Yglesias at Vox about the "Pundit's Fallacy," which is "the belief that the mistake candidates for office are making is a failure to embrace policy ideas that are near and dear to your heart personally."

In particular, Yglesias is talking about those such as columnist Robert Kuttner who believe a message of economic populism would have been the message to run on, pointing to the success of state minimum-wage measures. Expect moderate Democrats to trot out their version of this soon enough, and they'll be wrong, too. Neither campaign rhetoric nor specific positions on issues are important enough to overwhelm the fundamental context of the election.

It's hard for some people to accept, but the Democrats' problem involved things they couldn't control by better electioneering -- the sixth year of a relatively unpopular presidency, the tendency of Democratic-leaning groups to skip midterm elections, a good map (at least for Senate races) for the Republicans, the perception of the economy.

Put those things together, and you get one forecast model by political scientists, based on information gathered in the spring, predicting Republicans would wind up with about 248 seats, which is about what they are headed for. It wasn't campaign failures; it was the context of the election, which no magic words or even popular policies could do much to overcome.

That's not to say electioneering doesn't matter at all. It does. We just shouldn't attribute more importance to it than it can support.

Yglesias talks about the potential disconnect between liberals who see certain themes as obvious and the reality that swing voters in tough-to-win constituencies often have different sensibilities. True enough, probably. The more basic disconnect, when it comes to elections, may be that pundits -- professional wordsmiths -- put far too much emphasis on the skilled manipulation of words.

Nice catch!

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net