The Three Faces of Populism

AMERICAN POLITICS-More than at any other time in recent memory, American politics now are centered on class and the declining prospects of the middle class. This is no longer just an issue for longtime leftists or Democratic or right-wing propagandists. It’s a reality so large that even the most detached and self-satisfied Republicans must acknowledge it. 

The Left’s new superstar, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, identifies inequality as “the dominant issue in our public discourse” but similar assessments have recently been coming from such unlikely sources as GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Jeb Bush and even Mitt Romney. 

So, if populism will become a dominant theme in the next election, what form will it take? Populism itself is more a sentiment than a program; it reflects people’s deep-seated fears about the future and a festering resentment of the seemingly unassailable power of financial and other corporate elites. 

But the ways of addressing these concerns are often contradictory and almost impossible to agree upon. Right now, we see three distinct types of populism. Two variants, that of the Obama administration and its critics further on the left, share an allegiance to Democratic Party orthodoxy on issues such as climate change, racial redress, feminism and other social issues. 

The third – and, as of now, least-coherent – variant could be described as constitutional conservatism, one that seeks to improve middle-class prospects by reducing federal regulations and taxes and by decentralizing power away from the Washington leviathan. 

Do it like Davos -Only in the bizarre world of contemporary “progressivism” could the words “Davos Populism” appear together. Yet, as we saw recently at the Davos Conference, the agenda of the gentry Left – epitomized by the 1,700 private jets that brought attendees to the Swiss event – has merged with that of our current “populist in chief,” Barack Obama. The people burning fuel on private jets generally focus more on issues such as climate change, but even the most jaded grandee has been forced to acknowledge that inequality has become too big an issue to ignore. 

This includes people like Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, who was selected, among other things, to help lead a recent Democratic “post-mortem” project after the party’s disastrous 2014 election. The progressive blog Daily Kos noted “the inherently problematic nature of putting the chairman of a tech monopoly in a task force designed to figure out how to connect with the economic concerns of middle-class and working-class voters.” 

This odd blending of gentry and populistic posturing seems a logical product of the long-standing linkage between mainstream Democrats and their big-money core corporate base of venture capitalists, Wall Street financiers and Hollywood. Their embrace of populism adds to Obama’s lack of credibility on this issue. Analyst Zachary Karabell notes that the president spent his first six years “focused either on the needs of the very poor (the uninsured) or the very rich (Wall Street’s banks, which were nursed back to health).” 

With little chance of getting his program through the GOP-dominated Congress, the current effort seems opportunistic and even disingenuous. “Six years ago, middle-class economics might have been the basis of policies,” Karabell observes, “now it is the basis for political positioning.” 

At the same time, the real target of Davos populists is not themselves, of course. Instead, the effort is to further burden Obama’s version of Josef Stalin’s harsh treatment of Kulaks, the early Soviet Union’s successful but hardly ultrarich peasant class. Megan McArdle aptly describes Obama’s proposal – abandoned this past week – to tax college savings accounts to pay for subsidized college as “a plan to redistribute money from the upper middle class to the lower middle class.” 

Similar proposals, such as taxing the appreciation of inherited houses, as Glenn Reynolds notes, follow a very similar script. 

Davos populism may not end with Obama. Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategy seems to involve tapping the oligarchs for enough support to “shock and awe” potential competitors into surrender. It’s dubious that she, anymore than President Obama, will go after the more nefarious ways the ultrarich avoid taxes, such as the bogus protections of “carried interest,” a device that allows hedge fund managers to claim lower capital gains tax rates for what normally might be thought of as ordinary income. 

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Similarly, Obamacare hardly affects the rich, who can buy any medical care they want. However, as a Brookings Institution report suggests, the health care law transfers wealth and benefits from those earning close to the median income and somewhat above (notably, groups like Main Street businesspeople) to the benefit of the bottom fifth of earners. This strategy could work to swell Democratic Party allegiance among the expanding new proletariat, including many people once solidly ensconced in the middle class. 

Not surprisingly, after six years of minimal income gains and numerous tax increases, the middle class – Americans making roughly $60,000 to $90,000 – remains far less sympathetic to Obama’s policies than either the rich or the poor. Yet none of this likely affects the Davos attendees, like billionaire real estate investor Jeff Greene, who said, to fight climate change, Americans need to “live a smaller existence.” This, coming from a man with five houses, including a Beverly Hills estate listed at $195 million, does not constitute an ideal populist program.


(Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. His newest book, The New Class Conflict is now available at Amazon and Telos Press. He lives in Los Angeles.)






Vol 13 Issue 17

Pub: Feb 27, 2015