“I’ve not seen anything like this,” Ed Rollins said of today’s populist uproar.
March 23, 2009
For Populism, a Return to Economic Roots
By JOHN HARWOOD
In selecting villains, politicians reflect the anxieties of their era. Today’s populist uproar reaches far beyond the American International Group — and may mark a turning point.
As baby boomers came of age, targets for populist scorn typically tracked fears of social breakdown. At various points, they included the 1960s counterculture, welfare cheats, violent criminals, illegal immigrants and gay men and lesbians.
Now A.I.G. executives and their bonuses have set off revulsion among lawmakers, and the House last week voted overwhelmingly for tax rates at a level — 90 percent — unseen in decades. Amid recession and the troubles on Wall Street, economic populism has displaced social populism as the emotional flash point in American politics.
And as baby boomers approach retirement with depleted savings, it may last a while.
“I’ve not seen anything like this,” said a Republican consultant, Ed Rollins, who was a strategist for presidential bids by Ronald Reagan, Ross Perot and Mike Huckabee. “They think it’s all occurring because of greedy bastards on Wall Street and inept government officials.”
“If I wanted to run a populist presidential campaign,” Mr. Rollins added, “I’d have a lot more tools than I had with Ross Perot.”
Anger over economic change spawned the Populist Party after the Gilded Age in the late 19th century. Championing rural America, the party accused East Coast elites of dividing the country into “tramps and millionaires.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt attacked “economic royalists” during the Great Depression. “They are unanimous in their hate for me,” Roosevelt said, “and I welcome their hatred.”
Focus on Social Issues
That conflict, however, lost its spark with the economic boom after World War II and the advent of the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution and the Vietnam War. “In the 1960s, the center of gravity of populism shifted to social issues,” said Jeffrey Bell, a Republican who is the author of “Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality.”
George Wallace attacked “pointy-headed intellectuals who couldn’t park their bicycle straight.” Richard M. Nixon contrasted the “silent majority” of Middle America with unruly protesters, whom his vice president Spiro T. Agnew condemned as “an effete corps of impudent snobs.”
Crusading against government excess, Reagan, as a candidate, lampooned a “Chicago welfare queen” who received benefits under multiple identities. George Bush used the rapist Willie Horton to cast Democrats as soft on crime.
In the early 1990s, as worldwide economic integration showcased gaps between rich and poor, economic populism gained force from the voices of Mr. Perot and Bill Clinton. But the free trade policies that Mr. Clinton followed as president frustrated those seeking to place corporate elites in the cross hairs.
In 2000, Al Gore’s charge that “powerful interests” blunted working-class aspirations could not win him the White House. George W. Bush prevailed in two elections while courting “values voters,” and in 2004 backed a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
“The distribution of income and opportunity is likely to dominate the next stage of American politics,” Jeff Faux predicted in “The Global Class War” in 2006. But opposition to the Iraq war proved more powerful that November, even as Democrats regained control of Congress.
As the 2008 campaign began, Iraq and illegal immigration loomed as the most volatile issues. Then last fall, the financial crisis shoved other concerns aside and began to vindicate Mr. Faux’s prediction.
How long economic anger will persist remains unclear. “So far we don’t have the big political movement that helped stir up class issues in the 1930s,” said Alan Brinkley, a historian at Columbia, referring to the populist firebrands Huey P. Long and Father Charles Coughlin who put pressure on Roosevelt.
Public ire could help President Obama reverse Republican policies on taxes, domestic spending and regulation — shifts that he argues will curb the inequalities behind the current sense of outrage.
But it also could threaten Mr. Obama’s plan to stabilize the financial system. His temperament and public demeanor run toward cooling that anger rather than stoking it.
Once the Wall Street crisis eases and economic growth resumes, Mr. Bell predicts, social populism will regain pre-eminence. Others, though, see a continuing search for scapegoats as Washington uses more taxpayer money to cover bad bets by financial executives.
“You’re just seeing the beginning of this with A.I.G.,” said Robert Borosage, an adviser to the Rev. Jesse Jackson when he ran for president. “The people making off with all the rewards led the whole economy off a cliff.
“Working Americans are now asked to bail them out. This anger is going to get much worse.”
Baby boomers nearing retirement have long fretted that government cannot afford their promised Social Security and Medicare benefits. Now fallen housing and stock values have shrunk their savings. Their effort to pin blame could color the political agenda for years.
“You’re going to see a lot of elderly people coming up short,” said Mr. Rollins, the Republican strategist. “It’s not a normal cycle like we’ve been in. That’s the scary part.”