The Value of Political Populism
(Guest Post by Big Tent Democrat)
A few weeks ago in my post What Obama Needs To Learn, I wrote:
[T]hat is FDR's lesson for Obama. Politics is not a battle for the middle. It is a battle for defining the terms of the political debate. It is a battle to be able to say what is the middle. . . . FDR governed as a liberal but politicked like a populist. When LBJ rightly and to his everlasting credit removed one of the Dem pillars of paranoia - racism, the GOP co-opted populist racism, added the Jeffersonian notion of government and institutional hatred, throw in a dash of paranoid Red scare, now terrorism scare, and you get political victories. The lesson of Hofstadter is to embrace liberal governance and understand populist politics. It may sound cynical, but you must get through the door to govern. Lincoln knew this. FDR knew this. Hofstadter knew this. I hope Obama can learn this.
A debate about populism has been ongoing among some very smart folks. Brad DeLong has been in the middle of it, in particular in debate with Paul Krugman:
I am, as I said above, a reality-based center-left technocrat. I am pragmatically interested in government policies that work: that are good for America and for the world. My natural home is in the bipartisan center, arguing with center-right reality-based technocrats about whether it is center-left or center-right policies that have the best odds of moving us toward goals that we all share--world peace, world prosperity, equality of opportunity, safety nets, long and happy lifespans, rapid scientific and technological progress, and personal safety. The aim of governance, I think, is to achieve a rough consensus among the reality-based technocrats and then to frame the issues in a way that attracts the ideologues on one (or, ideally, both) wings in order to create an effective governing coalition.
I am a Big Tent Centrist Dem so that sounds good to me as a matter of policy. But what about the politics? I think populism is critical to Democratic politics. I'll discuss Delong's views and other matters related to populism, as policy and politics, on the other side.
DeLong describes one of his disagreements with Krugman as follows:
Right now Paul Krugman and I seem to have two disagreements. . . . Second, while I am profoundly, profoundly disappointed and disgusted by the surrender of the reality-based wing of the Republican policy community to the gang of Republican political spivs who currently hold the levers of power, I do think that there is hope that they will come to their senses and that building pragmatic technocratic policy coalitions from the center outward will be possible and is our best chance.
Paul, I think, believes otherwise: The events of the past decade and a half have convinced him, I think, that people like me are hopelessly naive, and that the Democratic coalition is the only place where reality-based discourse is possible. Thus, in his view, the best road forward to (a) make the Democratic coalition politically dominant through aggressive populism, and then (b) to argue for pragmatic reality-based technocratic rather than idealistic fantasy-based ideological policies within the Democratic coalition.He may well be right.
It is not clear to me that the idea that the Republican Party may return to its senses is incompatible with the political prescription Krugman advances. Indeed, as I described earlier, the political prescription Krugman advances is, in my view, FDR liberalism, both as to policy and politics.
I have previously argued that Richard Hofstadter has provided us a roadmap for the political psyche of our nation. With this insight, like Digby, I argue for a politics of contrast that not only highlights what Dems are about, but also highlights what Republicans are about. This view has placed me in conflict with the Lakoffian view of outreach to conservatives, as I advocate an agressive negative branding of conservatism and Republicanism - to wit, to an attempt to redefine the political middle.
Of course, this entire discussion ignores the elephant in the room, the national security issue. But the Bush Administration has provided Democrats with a great opportunity -- the sheer incompetence of the Bush foreign policy makes a thoughtful aggressive argument for what Democrats have always advocated for - a smart, humane, realistic, multilateral and effective approach to national security and foreign policy. Dems need not flinch (they never should have flinched in my view) on these issues. The Republicans have failed and the Democrats may have some answers that Americans may be receptive to now.
As always, the important thing is to be proud of who you are and what you stand for - Democratic values on both domestic and foreign policy are the right ones for our country. We should not be shy about saying that, and saying what Republican policies have been - a disaster.
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