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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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  • Re: The Value of Political Populism (none / 0) (#1)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sun Sep 03, 2006 at 12:53:57 AM EST
    When asked what I think about Democratic strategy, I reply in the spirit of Gandhi, that I think it would be a good idea. If the GOP has taught us anything it's that you have to create a well-financed ecosystem in which to incubate the memes you want to use change the way the public thinks and ultimately to win power. Unfortunately, all the good strategy in the world will come to naught unless liberals develop the media institutions to actually fight the battle for the public's minds. The Internet is growing like a weed, but its greatest impact is still a generation or more away. Grassroots efforts and entreprenuerial zeal only go so far when your project is building an audience. More than anything else, we need a way to mobilize our financial resources to build that infrastructure outside of the context of any particular candidate's political campaign or personal project.

    Re: The Value of Political Populism (none / 0) (#4)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sun Sep 03, 2006 at 06:09:51 PM EST
    DeLong's philosophy is halfassed boosterism for homo-economicus. It's lightweight thinking with numbers. I'm curious why you cut to the second difference DeLong has with Krugman: the importance of Unions. And of course also DeLong is only center left by the current definition in this country. But history is bunk, so I don't know why I even mention it.

    Re: The Value of Political Populism (none / 0) (#3)
    by Ernesto Del Mundo on Sun Sep 03, 2006 at 11:17:57 PM EST
    Why not just try to educate the voting public on the issues? Then if you are on the side of the people, you won't have to spend so much effort BSing them.

    Re: The Value of Political Populism (none / 0) (#2)
    by Che's Lounge on Sun Sep 03, 2006 at 11:31:55 PM EST
    It may sound cynical, but you must get through the door to govern. We'll have to kick it down to get these jerks out. ...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. Unfortunately, we had a coup in 2000 so these observations do not apply. The term reality-based technocrats is a contrived terminology that is the same as entrenched political pensioners. To attain the lofty goals of... world peace, world prosperity, equality of opportunity, safety nets, long and happy lifespans, rapid scientific and technological progress, and personal safety. ...will require the dismantling of the very system that perpetuates the Technocrats' positions. They would be demoted (politically) from their on-high positions of Defenders of the Faith, down to the bureaucrats that their jobs were originally designed to be. They will never cede that power peacefully.

    Re: The Value of Political Populism (none / 0) (#6)
    by profmarcus on Mon Sep 04, 2006 at 06:37:07 AM EST
    i consider myself an intelligent, highly-educated, articulate, well-traveled person... i teach in graduate school and my field is specialized, complex, and little understood... i can speak in academic tongues with the best of them, but i would be as phony as a three-dollar bill if i did... brad delong's statement of his perspective is a wonderful example of what i consider to be purely academic gobbledygook... when i read or hear this kind of stuff, i automatically glaze over and, trying not to be rude, move on to something else... i'm sure mr. delong means well and i think his heart is probably in the right place... but, speaking for myself, he is NOT the person i would want in charge of setting government policy... fortunately, we have people like atrios who, although coming from another perspective, help me to keep from bouncing off the ceiling... referring to delong, he says...
    This, in a nutshell, is the worldview of the Sensible Liberal. It's the belief that there are Sensible Policies concocted by Wise Men (and women), preferably ones with advanced degrees, which are Right and True and Good. Wise Men may disagree a bit about the means, and we should throw a few conferences to hash these differences out. Politics and ideologues who do not share the ideology of the Wise Men, who of course are not really tainted by ideology, get in the way of enacting policies which are Sensible.
    And, yes, I DO take it personally

    Re: The Value of Political Populism (none / 0) (#8)
    by jimakaPPJ on Mon Sep 04, 2006 at 07:51:01 AM EST
    "steven on charge" "steve in charge"... You know, I think it works either way. ;-)

    Re: The Value of Political Populism (none / 0) (#9)
    by Che's Lounge on Mon Sep 04, 2006 at 09:55:56 AM EST
    The French tried that a bit over two hundred years ago, didn't work out so well. For whom? The ruling class? For once you are right.

    Re: The Value of Political Populism (none / 0) (#11)
    by jimakaPPJ on Mon Sep 04, 2006 at 12:42:23 PM EST
    Che - Read some history and see what happened after the revoluion for God's sake. Of course we know how your name sake felt about breaking a few eggs.

    Re: The Value of Political Populism (none / 0) (#10)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Mon Sep 04, 2006 at 05:45:08 PM EST
    I'll take Steve over these neofascist lunatics. In fact I would take Forest Gump as an improvement