Here’s a question the Democratic Party can contemplate on the eve of its annual “progressive” rally, the YearlyKos.
What, exactly, is 21st century “populism”?
It sure is chic. Almost everybody who calls himself a Democrat is standing up for the little guy these days. But who’s a little guy? And why is it so hard to tell? Because looking at the various parts of this debate, it’s tempting to say that when it comes to Democratic Party Populism we’ve met the enemy and, well, he’s us.
The loudest voices have been the party activists at DailyKos who call themselves “progressives” but pride themselves on their populist leanings (and don’t seem to know that those terms carry different meanings for students of American history) who are beating this drum hard in a search for real and lasting influence. Presidential hopeful John Edwards talks about two Americas when it comes to wages, tax policy and health care. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton wants us to know she’s all about preserving jobs here in the U.S. – sort of – and Sen. Barack Obama is African-American so we know – just by looking at him – that he’s no friend of the “the man.” And all of them have backers who are millionaires over and over, courtesy of the new, global, Internet-based economy.
Certainly, there’s a lot of posing here. Black politicians in Chicago, where Obama chose to settle after graduating from Harvard Law School, are hardly marginalized. John Edwards was a trial lawyer – a leader of class-action suits who made millions and, unlike a lot of his colleagues, didn’t line his pocket at the expense of his clients. The crowd at Kos seem more bullying – and more concerned with their positioning as the party’s virtue squad – every month. And Clinton, well, she used to live in the White House, which isn’t exactly slumming.
Classic populism began with a genuinely aggrieved class: Midwestern farmers caught at the end of a century when the U.S. was moving from being an agricultural economy to an industrializing nation. Farmers and small town bankers took on the railroad, which they saw, correctly, as devaluing their goods by making them compete across the nation, and the “New York” banks whose interest rates and credit policies hurt them even more. Their hero was Williams Jennings Bryan, a wealthy and well-respected quasi-establishment figure who, living in Nebraska, was more the embodiment of small-town American virtues than the Robber Barons of Wall Street whom he so harshly criticized.
But 111 years after Bryan’s most famous speech, the “Cross of Gold” plea to inflate U.S. currency to relieve the financial stress on farmers, the contradictions between fighting for the little guy, actually being the little guy and profiting from defending the little guy are deeper than ever. In Bryan’s time, the fight was against the changes created as America urbanized and labor left the farms, as railroad united the nation’s commerce for the first time and businesses became corporations – large entities employing hundreds of people to manufacture goods – to meet the demand of the new, nationwide market.
Today, that’s being reversed in some ways and the trend toward rewarding individual efforts is increasing. The economic hero of today is the deal guy, the person who strikes out on his own and creates something. But these aren’t just hard-working corporate sloggers nor are they the totally self-made men of the 19th century. They are well-educated and have the financial resources to sustain themselves through lean times. These folks are hedge fund managers and venture capitalists – partners, not employees – software and Internet entrepreneurs. Almost all of them rely on 21st century communications – this Internet thing figures prominently – to expand the power of one talented individual. And that individual is often richly rewarded.
New York and California offer great looks at the dilemmas to come here. Take a look at the line Sen. Charles Schumer, a hard-working fund-raiser and long-time friend of Wall Street, has to walk, as his party debates measure to raise taxes on hedge funds and other partnerships. Schumer’s problem is that many of those independent entrepreneurs, VCs and self-made men believe themselves to be “little” guys who just happen to have done well and just happen to have been rewarded by “the market.” Their faith in their own efforts – as individual business people working outside the corporate system taking risks, often quite substantial risks – is as much a “fight the man” philosophy as anything else. Want to see an illustration of this in the hands of a master? Listen to Leo Hindrey compare himself and his career as a deal guy with Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter. Or check out Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs, probably our first self-styled counter-culture billionaire who’s made millions off iPods, iPhones and iMacs manufactured in Asia.
I have long called this group “Progressive libertarians” – for their belief in their ability to improve the world and their love of market-based “reality” – but as I watch this presidential campaign I can’t help but think about the stresses being put on the Demcratic Party by these very wealthy and very demanding donors. Something’s gonna give. And it may well be some solid assumptions about protecting that mythical little guy.
These folks are not self-made in the ways of their parents and grandparents. Most are the children of the post-World War II American middle class, people who could send their children to good and inexpensive state schools (Edwards went to NC State and UNC) or even better private schools (Clinton to Wellesley and Yale, Obama to Havard). These families had health insurance provided by their employers, most could count on pension funds to help with their retirement. In short, the mechanics to improve their ways of life were solidly in place. Think Jobs – like Hindrey, a deep-pocketed Democrat – is going to be interested in seeing Democrats make it harder to make computers in China?
The idea that America’s wealthy will reach out to provide the benefits they enjoyed to those who don’t have them anymore seems unlikely. The health care debate feels centered on what aging boomers need to be comfortable in old age. The education controversies are over loans, not the fact that many colleges (despite endowments, federal government support and tax-free status) are too expensive for most to attend or too poorly funded and supplied to offer a real education to anyone. The immigration debate neatly and repeatedly avoided any conversations about global economics and the need – around the world – for a mobile workforce. Tax policy centers on whether rates should be increased for billionaire hedge fund managers, not on the fact that these partnerships usually set their own tax rates by varying the ways, timing and characterization of compensation and using that to their advantage.
In other words, some of the very stuff that might hurt the self-made “little guys” of the new Internet class isn’t being discussed. And you have to wonder if that’s not because “populism” has been co-opted by the very folks it was meant to confront: the well-off who control our economic destiny. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that all this posturing is little more than an attempt to hark back to a day when going after big corporations really was radical. And it’s hard to avoid the worry that the folks the party should be serving – the struggling, the truly poor, the uninsured, the newly arrived – aren’t going to get anything like real assistance anytime soon.