I USED TO THINK

Anyone who reads the New York Times on-line without a pop-up blocker has been subjected to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison exulting that “I used to think. Now, I just read The Economist.”

Of course he’s kidding. But it’s not so funny.

Leaf through the past few issues of The Economist, and you’ll find unsigned articles calling on Lula to cut back pensions, on David Cameron to promise shrinking social spending, and on the Democratic Leadership Council not to go wobbly against organized labor. Then read over this parade of praise for the magazine – as a news source that saves you the time of having to read any of the other ones. Ted Turner draws a favorable contrast with Time Magazine (yes, that Time Magazine), which apparently is “too populist.” No need to worry about populism from The Economist.

Now if the same roster of CEOs stepped up singing the praises of, say, the Wall Street Journal, heads would turn over why a “conservative” paper’s reporting was being taken as holy writ by so many powerful people (never mind that the news section of the paper isn’t so different in bent from what you would get in the Times). But when so many in the global overclass quote chapter and verse from a “neoliberal” paper laying down structural adjustment through shrinking spending and shredded security as the best medicine for every situation, that’s another story. Or rather, it’s not a story.

MORE THAN ONE WAY (AS BILL FRIST WOULD SAY) TO SKIN A CAT

Over at The New Republic, John Judis takes what he seems to see as a cleverly iconoclastic position against the Sherrod Brown boosterism of the Nation and American Prospect. Both of those magazines published pieces this week pointing to Brown’s lead in his statewide race as a counterpoint to the conventional wisdom that only culturally conservative Democrats can win statewide office in reddish states. Judis responds by arguing that usually, only culturally conservative Democrats can win statewide office in reddish states. He points to Ted Strickland, the Gubernatorial candidate sharing the ballot with Brown, as a shining example.

Part of Judis’ argument is that Brown will really depend on Strickland’s coattails if he wins, because he’s not really that popular. Judis offers as evidence a couple “man on the street” quotes and the fact that Strickland has a larger lead over Blackwell than Brown does over DeWine. That might indeed show that Strickland is more popular than Brown; it might just show that Blackwell’s unabashed right-wing rhetoric on religion and record on voting is costing him votes. Or that fewer Republicans want to vote for a Black candidate.

But even if Strickland is more popular than Brown, Judis seems to be missing the point. Neither article argues that culturally conservative candidates can’t win elections in states like Ohio. They just argue that cultural conservatism isn’t a requirement. At risk of stating the obvious, these authors care about whether more progressive candidates can win as well as more conservative ones because they want to see more progressive candidates elected to office. So Judis’ claim that Strickland, not Brown, is the “perfect candidate” isn’t really a response to the descriptive arguments of either article. Either it’s a misreading of the authors’ arguments, or it’s meant to dispute their premise that the ideology of the candidates we elect, as well as their party affiliation, is reasonably important.

The authors don’t argue that Brown is the perfect candidate for winning as many Democratic votes as possible. They argue that he shows a way to win without compromising certain principles that matter – that right-wing cultural populism can be defused, rather than co-opted, by candidates offering left-wing economic populism. So when Brown is praised for drawing support across the state without doing photo ops at firing ranges, Judis isn’t really proving much of anything by pointing out that Strickland is popular and does do them. Here as elsewhere, willfully or accidentally, he’s conflating how easy it would be to get someone elected and how worthwhile it would be – which is what happens all too often in conversations about who progressives should run for office. We can care about both and recognize that they’re neither directly nor inversely correlated.

John Judis, of course, cares about policy too. And he’s not the biggest fan of the “myths of free trade” critique that Brown is levelling as part of his populist program. But if it’s the prospect, not the feasibility, of getting people like Brown into the Senate that concerns him, he should say so.

LISTENING TO LAURA (ET AL)

Here are the top three things that have genuinely surprised me listening to Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved, Laura Ingraham, and Dennis Prager on the local right-wing radio station the past month or so:

For an ostensibly uber-populist medium, there’s sure an awful lot of complaining about the ignorance and weak will of the American people. For every denunciation of the elitism of prayer-banning, lesbian-loving, terror-supporting liberal judges (who are just like the Islamo-Nazis in their lack of faith in the people, Laura Ingraham reminds us), there are two or three denunciations of the gullibility of our Bush-betraying, 9/11-forgetting, sacrifice-disrespecting electorate. ABC’s docu-drama, Hugh Hewitt insists, was assailed by the Democrats because it had the potential to remind an ungrateful citizenry of the risk posed by the bad men and the weak men who wouldn’t fight them. Michael Medved is doing his part by quizzing his callers about their ability to match terrorists with the buildings they tried to blow up – and then mocking them for not keeping up with the news. Turns out it’s the conservatives who are the pointy-headed know-it-alls.

More surprising has been the preponderance of product placement. Having trouble sleeping well as your kids return to public schools full of multiculturalism, sodomy, and self-esteem? Laura Ingraham can recommend a really comfortable mattress. Stressed over the preponderance of porn on the net? Michael Medved has just the safe-surf product for you – and it blocks those annoying pop-ups too! Looking to find a nice home safe from hoodlums and single parents? Check out Hugh Hewitt’s real estate agent!

And here some of us thought there were underlying contradictions between social conservatism and laissez-faire capitalism…

But perhaps the biggest surprise of my dalliance with the medium has been the enduring popularity of George W. Bush among some of the supposed leaders of a base that’s supposedly up in arms against the man. Sure, there’s talk of differences with the President, but it’s mostly that: references to having differences with the President in the context of defending him. Part of the explanation here is that Bush is a very conservative president. Call me cynical, but leading conservatives’ increasingly shrill protestations to the contrary are in large part about protecting the conservative brand from an unpopular product. These folks don’t seem to have gotten that memo (neither have the liberals who go on about how Bush isn’t conservative). But I think there’s something more going on here aside from policy.

These radio hosts spend less time defending the conduct of Bush’s war than they do the sincerity of his religious faith – which, they insist, is what maddens the left about him most. George Bush, like Hillary Clinton – who’s done much less for the left than Bush has for the right – has a popularity with a certain base as an icon based not just on what he believes but on what his beliefs and his biography together suggest about the kind of person he is (Paul Waldman would say this is about ethos rather than logos). Just as Clinton has a certain base of support that will stay loyal because she’s a brilliant woman who built a successful career and has withstood years of nasty attack by right-wing radio hosts, no matter what she says about trade of flag-burning, Bush has a certain base that will stay loyal because he’s an ostensibly straight-talking Texan who doesn’t respect the New York Times or the UN, no matter what he says about spending or immigration. Bush and Clinton each have a certain following who will cleave to them in good part because of the vituperation inspired in the other side. I think it’s clear, between Clinton’s loyalists and Bush’s, which group I think is getting taken for more of a ride.

PROGRESSIVE POPULISM

Having suggested what I think are some of the very different concepts in play in the dominant discussion of populism, and argued that one that’s ubiquitous in those discussions – prejudice – is out of place, it’s only fair that I take a stab at setting forth what the concept of populism is that’s in play when I call myself a populist and urge the Democrats to take on the mantle and meaning of populism. I won’t bother to argue that the conception of populism I’ll put forth here is somehow more real or historically accurate than the others floating around. What I feel strongest about when it comes to how use the word itself is simply, as I said yesterday, that the conflation of populism and prejudice by economic elites is deeply disingenuous, reflects a deeply entrenched class bias, and underpins a long-term campaign to mark the majority unfit to govern and its criticism of corporate power rank demagoguery.

That said, here are a few of the contentions which I think underpin a progressive populism:

The contention that a healthy economy is one in which the benefits of growth and prosperity should be shared and spread across society.

The contention that a just economy is one in which working people exercise a meaningful voice in the conditions and rewards of their work and in economic policy within and between nations.

The contention that basic human freedoms and opportunities are universal rights, across lines of race, sex, class, and nation, and not provisional privileges.

The contention that the ability of individuals to connect the conditions and challenges of their own lives to those of others, and to their political ideals, has the potential to propel progress.

The contention that policy and democracy both suffer when certain sets of experience are driven out of public discourse.

The contention that for a politician to seek out and fight for more votes is not the moral equivalent of seeking out and fighting for more dollars.

The contention that a willful compact to preserve individual rights by entrusting certain decisions to more insulated institutions is different from and preferable to the unauthorized handover of decisions to enfranchised elites and experts.

The contention that the political victories which last are the ones with popular mandates.

SIX POPULISMS

TPMCafe’s guest stint by Thomas Frank (One Market Under God, by the way, is a masterpiece) has stirred a spirited debate about the place of populism in a progressive future. Populism is a word which has rightly come up fairly frequently in more- and less-enlightened discussions of the left’s future, but too often it seems like folks are talking past each other. Here are six of the somewhat but not entirely related themes I think are in play in the way different people discuss populism:

Progressive Economics: In broad strokes, the economic policy proposals that get labeled as populist are the ones least popular with the Washington Post editorial board and the “Washington Consensus” crowd: fair trade or no trade; downward economic redistribution; unionization. Opposition to immigration often gets grouped in here as well as part of the same package, though for obvious reasons I’d rather apply the populist label to the push for equal labor rights for immigrants.

Direct Democracy: The other set of policy proposals which usually get the populist labels are the ones which bring political decisions under more direct control of the American public. This includes taking decisions away from judges and handing them over to legislatures and taking them away from legislatures and handing them over to public referenda.

Trust in crowds: Populism is also used to describe a posture – whether held by politicians or activists – of trust in the mass public and distrust in elites. Usually, trust in the public is justified by an appeal to the wisdom of common people in identifying their own problems and synthesizing their own solutions. And distrust in elites is justified on the grounds of their inability to understand those insights or, more often, their narrow interests.

Democratic Legitimacy: Populism also describes a particular kind of appeal made by elected or unelected political leaders. Candidates for office, especially, tend to get the populist label for seizing democratic legitimacy for themselves – that is, for framing themselves as the bearers and protectors of the people’s will. The corollary to the candidate as representative of the masses is the candidate as enemy of the elites, whose hostility is easily explained by their opposition to the popular policies and popular mandate.

Prejudice: Populism is also a frequently-invoked label to describe all manner of ugly prejudice, be it directed against Blacks, Jews, homosexuals, or immigrants. In this conception, populism is the cry of some self-defined majority against unwelcome interlopers. This meaning of populism – which gives elites a lot of credit – is never far when someone’s looking to discredit one of the others.

Economic Focus: Maybe the simplest sense in which the word populism is used is to refer to a focus on economic issues (rather than a particular stance on them), to the exclusion of others.

That makes two kinds of policy approaches, two rhetorical/ philosophical postures, a question of focus, and a very bad thing (generally thrown into the mix by pundits like Joe Klein to make everything associated with the word sound ugly). Each of them, though, has a way of showing up implicitly in discussions about what is or should be populist.

What does it mean, for example, to ask whether Bill Clinton was a populist President? He often gets described that way, in large part because he ran on the economy (“It’s the Economy, Stupid”), and because his challenge to Bush benefited significantly from a sense that Clinton represented the concerns of the American people with which the President had fallen out of touch (and supermarket ray-guns). Others associate Clinton with the decline of populism in the Democratic party, and of the party in the country, pointing to his conservative stance on issues like NAFTA and the technocratic underpinnings of the “Reinventing Government” concept. I’m not going to say they’re both right (I’d say Clinton campaigned as a populist, but he didn’t govern as much of one). I will say that on those terms, it’s no surprise that those conversations don’t get farther than they do.

Thoughts?

This NY Times piece – “Mr. Inside Embraces Mr. Outside, and What a Surprise” is one of many analyses that will no doubt proliferate over the next few days trying to explain Gore’s endorsement.

I think Purdum is on the right track in noting Gore’s drastic shift to the left since the 2000 election, as well as his series of strident condemnations of Bush policy over the past months. These have been, by turns, gratifying and maddening, I think it’s safe to say, to those of us who were exasperated with Gore for leaving so little ideological distinction between himself and Bush during the actual campaign. Gore’s piece in the Times after the Enron scandal tying corporate malfeseance to Bush’s corporate politics made the right case – but it’s a case that, contrary to what that piece also said – Gore never made on the campaign trail. Those conservatives who think (occasionally rightly) that they can convince American voters that the main fault line in their politics is between civil and uncivil politicians have tried to use Gore’s move to the left as evidence that he’s bitter and angry at his personal loss. I think it’s much more that Gore, like Clinton and other New Democrats, recognize the appeal of Old Democrat values and so fall back on them once out of office both to bring nobility to their legacy and to convince themselves that they at least lost because they stood for something and not because they didn’t. Dean’s aggressive condemnations of the failings of this administration fit the message that Gore has claimed for himself since 2000. So it’s shouldn’t be surprising to see him endorsing someone who’s ready to carry that message forward – and to see him endorsing the candidate who’s running the kind of campaign now that many wanted him to run four years ago.

What Purdum’s analysis for the Times fails to mention, however, is what may really be the most compelling reason for Gore to endorse Dean now: he’s winning. Gore, in the same way as, say SEIU, gains power from picking late enough to choose the one who’ll win and early enough to be as formative in that victory as possible. Gore specifically, however, has the chance by endorsing Dean to merge their narratives – one populist fighter has the election narrowly stolen but four years later another arises to take it back – and drown out the alternative – the New Democrat establishment fouls up an election and it’s left to a populist outsider to ride in four years later to fix it.

Purdum asks whether this will hurt Gore’s credibility, and I think the answer is no more than Gore’s already hurt his credibility by governing and campaigning from the center and then moving to the left since. More importantly, he asks whether this will hurt Dean’s candidacy, and I don’t think it will measurably. Dean has successfully enough framed himself as an outside-the-beltway candidate, and campaigned that way long enough, that I think this will come off more as the beltway coming around to the Governor of Vermont than the other way around. More fundamentally, I think candidates can be effectively criticized, in extreme cases, for not repudiating deeply objectionable folks who endorse them, but that otherwise criticizing them for who endorses them is difficult to pull off. I think that Al Gore’s endorsement will give Dean’s critics on the left about as much ammunition as Jesse Jackson Jr.’s, Ted Rall’s, Molly Ivins’, William Greider’s, et al gave his critics on the right: not a whole lot, in the long term. Speaking as one of those critics on the left, that Dean got Gore’s endorsement says to me just that he’s an effective organizer. Gore endorsing Dean may give some added momentum and visibility to Sharpton and Kucinich’s campaigns, which could only be good for the Democratic party, but I don’t see any of the other candidates positioned at this point to use it to frame themselves as the independent choice.

What this endorsement does, as I see it, is move a slew of voters to consider Dean – or to consider him seriously – who hadn’t before, and deflate much of the criticism from DLCers and others of Dean as unelectable or out of the mainstream. Much as Jackson’s hashkachah (certification, roughly translated) marks Dean kosher for some to his left, Gore’s will mark him kosher for some to his right. And it may mean that the Democratic establishment is learning not only the lesson of 2002 – what happens when you offer no viable alternative – but also the lesson of 1972 – what happens when the party leadership abandons the party’s candidate.