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Is Democracy Killing Democracy?

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Illustration by Mark Nerys  

Decadent, powerful elites have been the bogeyman for two centuries of American populists. The Jeffersonians’ elite antagonists were the merchant class. (Never mind that Jefferson was America’s first great free-spending, radicchio-growing, cheese-and-wine-importing, European-architecture-loving liberal.) The elite loathed by Jacksonians was the same one the populist right loves to hate 180 years later: the federal bank, urban cosmopolites, wimpy intellectuals.

The populist impulse isn’t always or altogether bad. Two decades after the 1890s People’s Party proposed a progressive income tax and the direct election of senators, the Constitution was amended accordingly.

But the powerful fuels of populism are the sorts of violent passions the framers sought to contain. In the sixties, the Republicans, sensing the resentments of post-civil-rights whites, saw their opening to supplant the Democrats as America’s populist party. Yet as the conservative social historian Christopher Lasch wrote in 1991, in order to achieve its oxymoronic modern form—the populist pro-big-business party—the GOP “needed to stir up resentment of elites without stirring up the old populist resentment of capitalists.” And so for nearly half a century, the Republicans have depended on populist pandering to the resentments of put-upon working-class whites—to fear and loathing of liberals’ lah-de-dah attitudes about crime and abortion, of gays, of science, of immigrants. To make their national comeback, the Democrats had to do their own oxymoronic reinvention, becoming less populist economically (balanced federal budgets, less welfare, free trade) but more populist superficially (Elvis-loving, Big Mac–gobbling, horn-dogging, Sister Souljah–disapproving Bill Clinton).

While the tea-party movement is not populist in a coherent economic sense, it has all of populism’s worst historical features—not just the conspiracist paranoia about malign elites but also the desperately nostalgic sense of dispossession, the anti-immigrant anger, the anti-intellectualism. Notwithstanding the racist signs at tea-party rallies, let’s stipulate that most tea-partiers aren’t racist. Yet according to a new poll by Research 2000 commissioned by Daily Kos, 36 percent of Republicans think President Obama wasn’t born here and another 22 percent aren’t sure. If Obama were white and his father had been, say, Norwegian, there wouldn’t be much of a “birther” movement. As an unabashedly elitist African-American, Obama has an unprecedentedly synergistic super-badness in the right-wing populist demonology.

In only one economic realm do modern populism and Republicanism neatly coincide: The less taxes, the better. But the Republicans would be unelectable if they also pushed for cuts in Social Security and Medicare, the populist-socialist benefit programs everyone loves. So 30 years ago they abandoned their core principle of prudent budgets, becoming the don’t-tax-but-do-spend party of fiscal cynics and/or magical thinkers.

California is a big canary in this mine. Because the state makes it so easy to put policy initiatives on the ballot—a legacy of turn-of-the-century populism—the passage of the property-tax-limiting Proposition 13 in 1978 put the state on the road to fiscal ruin. And the fact that passing budgets in the California Legislature requires a two-thirds supermajority means the state has become almost ungovernable, especially since the recession. Reactionary, monomaniacally anti-tax populism—that is, too much democracy and too little elite wisdom—has crippled California.

One certainly understands why populist anger is roiling America. But the crazy contradictions at the heart of today’s Bizarro World populism—TV millionaires calling for insurrection, capitalists slagging the underprivileged—was evident at the moment of the tea-party movement’s genesis a year ago. That was the morning when CNBC’s Rick Santelli, a former trader, got a mob of financial-industry guys at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to loudly revile, on live TV, those poor suckers who took on too much of the financial industry’s too-easy debt.

“How about this, president and new administration?” said Santelli. “Why don’t you put up a website to have people vote on the Internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages?”

Traders around him cheered.

“You know,” Santelli continued, “Cuba used to have mansions and a relatively decent economy. They moved from the individual to the collective … We’re thinking of having a Chicago tea party in July. All you capitalists … I’m gonna start organizing.”

It was just amazing, like a scene from some 21st-century remake of A Face in the Crowd, the 1957 Elia Kazan film about a charismatic populist hayseed who gets his own hugely successful TV show, then becomes a pawn of corporate tycoons and an adviser to a conservative presidential candidate. “Hey, Rick?” one CNBC anchor said, “can you do that one more time, just get the mob behind you again?

What Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics” isn’t limited to the right, of course. But true left-wing populism is a fringe whose political stars—Dennis Kucinich, Ralph Nader—have next to no national traction. Then there’s Michael Moore, of whom only 31 percent of Democrats have a “favorable opinion,” according to a Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll last year. One reason populism has become a much more potently right-wing tendency during the last 60 years, I think, is that the left is no longer capable of signaling that it mistrusts racial or ethnic (or now sexual) minorities. Populism without contempt for definably exotic groups lacks a certain political oomph, it turns out.


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