Bipartisan Rejection, Populists and the Grassroots

What’s most interesting about the failed bailout plan is that it was such a bipartisan decision. Until yesterday I had no idea that 95 Democrats would oppose the plan. After supposed “leader” Nancy Pelosi ransacked many Republicans for their hardcore stance against the bailout, you would have thought her people would come through. Not so much. As Daniel Larison writes today at Culture11, “Indeed, the House’s refusal to adopt the modified Paulson plan has to be seen as a product of a complete loss of faith in public institutions among members of both parties.”

Larison continues on the larger problem among members of Congress as well as the grassroots/free market folks who have failed to present a laudable alternative:

Despite the desirability of particular protests against federal legislation, they are almost entirely reactive, their aims limited strictly to halting a particular action. If the House stopped a bad bill out of fear of a popular backlash on Monday, so far no one in government has promoted workable alternatives that would command both public support and a majority in Congress. And, on the whole, the grassroots protesters are not providing those alternatives.

This is the main legitimate critique of populist politics, which remains in this country a politics of crisis. It seems incapable of gaining purchase in the public imagination except when public institutions are manifestly failing. This may appear to be a necessary corrective, as the populist ferment provokes reform, but what we see as a matter of practice is that the populists rage against this or that symptom of structural flaws and lose patience in building and sustaining an organized reform movement.

Populist abdication leads directly to empowering the very kind of political class that disdains and ignores the populists. Until populists begin developing a coherent alternative agenda and start serving as a credible alternative source of leadership, the rift between the government and the public will remain, making effective responses to any true crises nearly impossible.