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Is Democracy Killing Democracy?

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Still, Obama is now making gentle swerves in the populist direction. He called the Supreme Court decision unleashing corporate political expenditures “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health-insurance companies, and the other powerful interests.” About the fees he wants to impose on banks, he said, “We want our money back.” Like Franklin Roosevelt, after saving the capitalist system, he has to do political battle with the capitalists he saved.

“We all hated the bank bailout,” Obama said in his State of the Union speech, which the Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley called a “populist message delivered with patrician restraint.” But in fact, the message and certainly his proposals aren’t really very populist—which is fine by me. What I wonder is whether paying lip service to anti–Wall Street, anti-corporate sentiment, Obama style, can really work in a time when populism has become so much about cultural resentment and lumpenprole style.

“Powerful influences,” FDR said in a speech at (James) Madison Square Garden just before his first reelection, “strive today to restore that kind of [Republican] government with its doctrine that government is best which is most indifferent.” His first term had been a “struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking … They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.” Because Franklin Roosevelt was an actual patrician, with lots of socialists to his left and unabashed capitalists to his right, he could deliver a populist message with full-throated populist fervor. Candidate Obama was thrilling to we non-populists because he didn’t resort to the standard populist bag of tricks—no vitriol or demagoguery, no blame-mongering, no pseudo-simple solutions to staggeringly complex problems. And so now he is caught in a Catch-22: As a black man, he got elected by proving to white voters that he was not angry or resentful or hotheaded, that he utterly lacked the populist temperament—yet as president he’s faulted for lacking a populist’s passion and rhetorical oversimplifications.

California is a big canary in this mine. Too much democracy and too little elite wisdom has crippled the state.

If his opponents are hysterically overreacting to Obama policies—such as the comparatively reasonable GOP congressman Paul Ryan’s warning of “early signs of Hugo Chávez economics”—others may be hysterically overinterpreting his political decline. The polling data doesn’t look so terrible except in comparison with the (hysterically) positive numbers he racked up in the giddy weeks around his election and inauguration. For the year before that, according to nine straight Wall Street Journal/NBC News polls, about half the country had positive feelings toward Obama, and about a third felt negatively—the same level to which both numbers returned by last summer, and where they remain today.

To the degree that fiscal discipline really is a major tea-party issue and a source of general anxiety—that seems to be what got Scott Brown elected—Obama can lead the charge to make the hard choices the way Clinton did, by governing like an old-fashioned balanced-budget Republican. With the discretionary-budget freeze and his announcement of a presidential commission that would constrain entitlements, he’s taken a modest first step.

But are there enough sober designated drivers willing to ignore the tea-party frenzy and seriously engage? “That’s pandering populism,” GOP senator Judd Gregg said about colleagues to his right and left trying to stop Ben Bernanke’s reappointment as Fed chairman, “There’s a lot of populism going on in this country today, and I’m getting a little tired of it myself. What it’s going to do is burn down some of the institutions which are critical to us as a nation.” Okay: That’s one Republican, maybe, sort of.

Of course, in a democracy, the people, even the unreasonable and crazy people, have to be made to feel they’ve been heard. But the job of serious Washington grown-ups with big populist constituencies—both presidents Roosevelt, Reagan, even Richard Nixon—is to respond to the rage with the minimum necessary demagoguery, throw them a few bones to calm them down, and then make deals with your fellow members of the elected elite. Civility and sanity and prudence prevail, as the founders intended. Obama’s plainspoken human-to-human give-and-take with the House GOP caucus the other week was a perfect model for how the Washington elite could walk together back from the brink.

But it’s possible that the populist impulse is now too powerful for the elite to reassert control. In the old days, the elite media really did control the national political discourse; there were no partisan, splenetic cable news or ubiquitous talk-radio channels and no blogosphere to keep the populists riled up and make them feel the excitement of a mob. Until fifteen years ago, presidents and congressional leaders could pretty well manage the policy conversations, keep them on reasonable simmer. But the new technologies have, maybe permanently, turned up the political heat to boil.


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