Generally speaking, populism is the political belief that power should ultimately rest in the hands of the “little people.” Its hard to define who the “little people” actually are unless you on the left side of the political spectrum in which case they are the 99%. In fact, most polling shows that the American public is generally wary of things that are “big” be they government, unions or corporations. In many polls, one in two respondents say they do not trust government while about three in four people believe that political power rests in the hands of too few people, or that special interests have too much sway. However, when push comes to shove, probably only about 10% of the American public is truly “populist.” Where the Right has the advantage is the unpopularity of the federal government which generally ranks higher among the concerns of people than any single issue. Hence, the Right wing populism that opposes big government and seeks to reign in that government should resonate more with voters than Leftist populism.
The problem is that the trail of these promises of smaller government on the Right and a better government on the Left are littered with broken promises. Starting in the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson neither defeated the Viet Cong, nor did he wipe out poverty in America. Jimmy Carter did not tame inflation and high unemployment, not did he free any hostages in Tehran. George W. Bush did not get the federal deficit under control, nor did he capture Bin Laden “dead or alive.”
Today, populism on the Left boils down to a single issue- income inequality. Their form of populism is one that we have seen before. The solution is nothing short of income redistribution either forced upon the 1% through the tax code, or resorting to bully tactics to achieve their ends such as protests, boycotts and a whole lot of misinformation.
But a funny thing happened along the way with their form of populism. Their best example is the Occupy Wall Street movement which after a brief period of notoriety basically petered out. In the beginning, it expressed some anger at the big banks on Wall Street who received a massive government bailout. Likewise, the best example on the Right is the Tea Party movement which also arose out of anger over those very same bailouts. Where they diverged is that the Tea Party stayed rather on-task while the OWS movement strayed off task. When news people interviewed the OWS protesters, their’s was a litany of wrongs they were out to correct- a laundry list starting with banking reform (which usually meant jailing bankers), anti-free trade and globalization, feminism, gay rights, anti-death penalty, climate change and environmentalism, student debt, etc. By contrast, the Tea Party to this day is still a movement for smaller government. There is very little of the social issues in their rhetoric as compared to the Left. It is why today the mainstream media refers to the more conservative Republicans as the “Tea Party contingent” and they have dropped the OWS moniker for the more liberal Democrats. In effect and like so many other Leftist populist movements, Occupy Wall Street is just a small blip in American political history.
What this boils down to and the reason the Left will not eventually win is that the Left has been looking for the demise of capitalism since the days of Karl Marx. They have used financial crises big and small, Depressions, world wars and revolution. Today, their best vehicle for the demise of capitalism is climate change since all of their solutions basically would rip apart capitalism worldwide. That is why opposition to the radical environmental Left is so important today and why there is such great push back from the Left. Despite all the doomsday warnings, one can almost guarantee that cheap electric, cheap gas and cheap heat in the winter trump all those warnings. That would be the best sword to strike down this liberal nonsense: show the people what their solutions to climate change would cost, then offer better lower-cost solutions.
Besides the series of broken promises, there have also been charlatans along the way spouting forth the mantra of populism. Perhaps the best known one on the Right would be Ron Paul. But, if you break down his arguments, it boils down to nothing short of American isolationism. While that “populist” foreign policy may appeal to many (I know many liberals and Democrats who like Ron Paul’s message on this issue), the remainder of his policy proposals are usually Libertarian pie-in-the-sky lists. For example, rail as we might against the Federal Reserve, it is not going anywhere. Should it be audited? That is another story with some merit, but the populist aim to disband the Federal Reserve is just rhetoric.
On the Left, we can look to [mc_name name=’Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’W000817′ ], the self-proclaimed inspiration behind Occupy Wall Street and self-proclaimed Cherokee. She gained some notoriety with her so-called “manifesto” which was long on great taglines and short of specifics and with good reason. Virtually everyone of those things mentioned costs money- someone’s money- and usually not the money of those who are the beneficiaries of the proposal. And that is exactly where Leftist populism gets into trouble.
To achieve most of what Warren and other Leftists wish to achieve would require the heavy hand of a larger and more intrusive federal government- the very thing poll after poll illustrates the people mistrust the most. Thus, the Left’s harping on the populist notion of income inequality sounds great until you get to the specifics and the policy proposals. It sounds great and looks fair to pay the employee of McDonald’s more, until the cost of your Happy Meal increases. It sounds great to get college graduates out of burdensome debt, until you find that your tax dollars are supporting a graduate of Gender Studies. And the list goes on.
The biggest reason that the Left’s populist message will fail is because it is, for lack of a better phrase, un-American. This country has a proud tradition of innovation, of those at the bottom having the greatest chance to rise at least to the middle if not the top. It is why immigrants come here and not Russia or Cuba. For all its alleged warts, this is still the country people look up to (or was, before Obama). But the Left’s solutions seek to negate that spirit. Their’s is a concept of equality based on results while on the Right it is based on the concept of equality of opportunity. This is why the “populist” message of a person like Warren ignites only the Democratic base, not the American public in general. But, the Democratic “base” is not truly reflective of America in general.
Some of the greatest periods of American economic growth and ingenuity came about when the government stayed out of the way. There were winners and there were losers, but people had an equal chance of being either without the government choosing or picking sides. The Left’s solution is an never-ending series of choices of winners that they choose where everyone gets the trophy. You are not guaranteed success simply by virtue of being an American. While we should certainly have laws and regulations that make sure the process is open, it should not pick winners and losers and its goal should be to give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed…or fail, because there will and must be failures. The only other option is a race to mediocrity. A message that stresses the innate greatness of the American people and an equality of opportunity, not results or special/preferential treatment, will defeat the Left’s fake populism any day.