“We will focus on economic fairness in a country divided too much by class,” thundered Jim Webb, joined by hundreds as he celebrated his victory as Virginia’s newest senator. “At a time when profits are at a record high and wages are at a low, we will focus on bridging the class divide.”
Economic populism is hardly new. First emerging amidst the collapse of America’s agricultural market during the 1870s, its proponents pushed for collective action among individual farmers to raise the price of agricultural products. That crusade soon resulted in a political movement that achieved widespread popularity, and the Populist party was born. Calling for an end to the gold standard, an eight-hour workday, and increased federal regulation of the economy, the party materialized as a political force by the turn of the twentieth century. But shortly thereafter, the Democrats realized they could stop the movement in its tracks by simply adopting the Populists’ platform on farm credit and national monetary policy. After losing four straight presidential elections, the Populist party disappeared.
But populism’s legacy never vanished.
One hundred years later — from the “Buy America” movement of the early Ã?Â?Ã?Â¢Ã?Â¢?Ã?Â¬Ã?Â??90s to John Edwards’s incessant talk of “two Americas” in the 2004 presidential elections — populism remains popular. For politicians seeking office, exploiting the class consciousness of what used to be called the working classes continues to pay dividends at the polls.
But populism rarely delivers on its promise of greater economic equality. As Time magazine’s Joe Klein once put it, “Populism is one of the more romantic and less admirable American political traditions. It purports to represent the interests of the little guy. More often than not, it has manifested itself as a witlessly reactionary bundle of prejudices: nativist, protectionist, isolationist, and paranoid.”
Populism’s loudest proponent these days, the personification of its witless reactionary prejudices, is CNN’s Lou Dobbs. Night after night, Dobbs rails against the “excesses of capitalism,” relentlessly targeting illegal immigration, free trade, globalization, offshoring, and other examples of “corporate greed.”
His nightly program features a segment called “Exporting America,” and his website includes a permanently updated list of “U.S. companies either sending American jobs overseas, or choosing to employ cheap overseas labor, instead of American workers.” As of this writing, the list includes 791 American firms.
Dobbs’s newest book is titled War on the Middle Class, and on any given night, there’s a good chance that Dobbs will begin his show warning of America’s “illegal alien invasion.”
And over the past three years, his program has found enormous success. He now averages nearly one million viewers each night, and his show is CNN’s second most-popular program.
In the 2006 elections, all of Dobbs’s issues were on display. And across the nation, Dobbsian Democrats were swept to victory. Quite simply, populism is back.
Although plenty of voters abandoned the GOP because of Iraq, corruption, and Katrina-fueled questions of competency, the truth is that without the return of economic populism, the Democrats wouldn’t have picked up nearly as many as seats. In the nation’s closest contests, this sentiment put the Democrats over the top.
In Missouri, Democratic candidate Claire McCaskill defeated first-term senator Jim Talent after launching a series of heart-wrenching web ads in the final days of her campaign featuring “Real Missouri Voices.” In one of these, a voter laments that his “ten-year job is moving to Mexico,” and McCaskill concludes the spot by explaining that “unfair trade agreements have sent good American jobs packing, hurting Missouri workers and communities. We should be encouraging businesses to stay at home, not rewarding them for moving overseas.”
In Montana, where George W. Bush defeated John Kerry by twenty points in 2004, Jon Tester triumphed over Conrad Burns — the longest-serving Republican senator in Montana history — by promising to “firmly oppose unfair trade agreements” and “protect American jobs.”
In Virginia, Jim Webb shamelessly played the class consciousness of the state’s middle-income workers, and he managed to eke out a victory over Sen. George Allen, winning by less than one-half of one percent. Invoking class struggle at every opportunity, Webb blamed “stagnant wages and rising cost of living” for a “middle class squeeze,” and advocated a reexamination of “our tax and trade policies [to] reinstitute notions of fairness.”
Eight days after the election, Webb published a column in the Wall Street Journal that began by describing the nation’s “steady drift toward a class-based system.” Webb’s culprit? “In the age of globalization and outsourcing, and with a vast underground labor pool from illegal immigration,” he continued, “the average American worker is seeing a different life and a troubling future.”
And in Ohio, Sherrod Brown — the nation’s most well-known economic populist — sailed to victory over incumbent Sen. Mike DeWine, winning by twelve points. A seven-term representative from the western suburbs of Cleveland, he issued a litany of populist promises during his victory speech, pledging to fight “against job-killing trade agreements that betray our values and destroy our communities.” Considering, however, that Brown authored a book entitled Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed, his strong language is hardly surprising.
Elsewhere in Ohio, Democratic representative Charlie Wilson told Congressional Quarterly in a postelection interview that his focus will be “jobs, jobs and, of course, jobs.” To ensure that happens, Wilson will push for changes in trade policy. As he went on to say, “Free trade is not really fair trade.”
In a report produced after the election by Democratic pollsters Stan Greenberg, James Carville, and Robert Borosage for a research and polling organization called Democracy Corps, the authors found that “the swing voters . . . were strongly populist, with concerns about ethics, corruption, and corporate interests which nearly equaled anger about Iraq.” Further, the report found “overwhelming support for protecting jobs and ensuring that trade is fair, rather than government promoting free trade to expand exports and import cheaper goods.”
Similarly, according to postelection analysis conducted by Stan Greenberg’s polling firm, 26 percent of those who voted Democrat cited “jobs and the economy” as their main reason for voting against the GOP. Only Iraq was cited more often. Further, the Democrats carried nearly 60 percent of the nation’s independents.
So why has populism returned?
First, economic anxiety. According to the Census Bureau, the nation’s median household income fell 5.9 percent between 2000 and 2005, from $49,133 to $46,242. Health care costs have risen rapidly over the past decade, and more than 46 million Americans are now without health insurance coverage.
This uncertainty is particularly strong in middle America, where workers are increasingly scared that their jobs will wind up in Mexico, India, or China. In Ohio, for example, 200,000 manufacturing jobs have disappeared since 2001, and unemployment is nearly a full percentage point higher than the national average. Nationwide, nearly 3 million manufacturing jobs have been lost in the past five years, and as a result, the narrative of corporate offshoring resonates strongly with voters.
That’s why, when the chairman of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers told Congress that “if a good or service is produced at lower cost in another country, it makes sense to import it rather than to produce it domestically,” a political firestorm ensued. In the aftermath of that remark, who can forget Sen. John Kerry’s continuous attacks on “Benedict Arnold” firms?
Further, if the swing vote is comprised of white, middle-aged, middle-income, rural and suburban voters — otherwise known as “soccer moms” and “NASCAR dads” — then conventional cultural concerns didn’t play as well this year. While the Republicans have managed to successfully target these voters in recent years through hot-button issues like God, gays, guns, babies, and patriotism, the Democrats were able to parlay America’s dissatisfaction with the GOP into support for their populist platform.
In fact, populism has played so well that even the nation’s centrist Democrats have moved in that direction. While campaigning in Tennessee to replace retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. ran to the right of even some Minutemen on immigration. He strongly supported Rep. James Sensenbrenner’s immigration bill in the House and stoked anti-immigrant sentiment throughout his campaign.
In one radio ad, Ford solemnly intoned, “Every day over 5,700 miles of border stands unsecured. Every day almost 2,000 people enter America illegally. Every day hundreds of employers look the other way, handing out jobs that keep illegals coming. And every day the rest of us pay the price. I’m Congressman Harold Ford Jr. For too many years, Democrat and Republican presidents alike have looked the other way.”
Even though it was considered a long-shot candidacy, Ford came within three percentage points of besting Republican candidate Bob Corker.
In the same vein, bashing Wal-Mart is now en vogue for moderate Democrats. Early in the 2006 campaign, for example, Sen. Hillary Clinton returned a $5,000 contribution from Wal-Mart’s political action committee. Less than two weeks after the election, Sen. Barack Obama joined former vice-presidential candidate John Edwards in a conference call with the union-backed group WakeUpWalMart.com, where Obama lectured about “the battle to engage Wal-Mart and force them to examine their corporate values and policies.”
Never mind the fact that, according to a recent report by Rasmussen, 42 percent of all Americans say they shop at Wal-Mart at least once a month, and 69 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of the company. And “generally speaking,” the majority of Americans believe that Wal-Mart is “good for the community.”
Further, in a report prepared for the Aspen Institute before the 2006 election, Democratic pollster and former Clinton advisor Douglas Schoen found that America’s voters have “no appetite for policies of wealth redistribution.” Moreover, according to a postelection Rasmussen poll, the overwhelming majority of Americans continue to believe that tax hikes are bad for the economy.
Yet it seems more likely that Americans will only flirt with class warfare, not actually engage in it. On the same November day that John Edwards participated in the anti-Wal-Mart conference call with Sen. Barack Obama, a staffer for the former vice presidential candidate asked Edwards’s local Wal-Mart for help in securing a $600 Sony PlayStation 3.
And therein lies modern populism’s fatal flaw. While middle America feels anxious about the modern economy — and remains susceptible to heart-wrenching arguments of economic fairness — there’s enough money floating around to make a $600 video game console the season’s hottest Christmas gift. And when the weather gets cold, $5 gingerbread lattes are the fashionable morning beverage.
Somehow, somewhere, Americans are still making money. Movies remain popular at $10 a ticket; plasma-screen televisions adorn America’s living rooms; teenagers wear $200 designer jeans to school. Even America’s poorest citizens have cars, televisions, and telephones. Today, scarcity is a thing of the past.
Which brings us back to Lou Dobbs. For all his railing against the nation’s political and business elites, the Texas-born, Idaho-raised news anchor has found a way to live on a three-hundred-acre farm in New Jersey and regularly dine at New York City’s finest restaurants. Not exactly a man of the people.
Shortly before the election, Douglas Schoen argued that “the only conclusion we will be able to draw from a big Democratic win is that Americans are not so much embracing Democrats as much as they are rejecting Republicans.”
Sure, when it comes to the economy, the nation is a bit insecure. But unless there’s a sudden shortage of PlayStation 3s, we Americans are more likely to realize that the big economic picture is pretty bright these days.
David White is a writer in Washington.