Occupy Wall Streeters claimed that they were populists. Their ideological opposites, the Tea Partyers, said they were, too. Both became polarizing. So far, populism, whether on the right or left, does not seem to have made inroads with the traditional Republican and Democratic establishments.
Gas has gone up about $2 a gallon since President Obama took office. Given average yearly rates of national consumption, that increase alone translates into an extra $1 trillion that American drivers have collectively paid in higher fuel costs over the past 54 months. Such a crushing burden on the cash-strapped commuter class is rarely cited in the liberal fixation on cap-and-trade, wind- and solar-power subsidies, and the supposed dangers of fracking.
When the president scaled back the number of new gas and oil leases on federal lands over time, and when he warned that “under my plan of a cap-and-trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket,” he was appealing to his boutique base — not to those who can scarcely meet their monthly heating and cooling bills.
Should there not be an opening for a conservative populist response? Unfortunately, pro-drilling conservatives sound more like spokesmen for oil companies than grass-roots champions for strapped motorists.
Total student debt is approaching $1 trillion. That is an unsustainable burden for recent graduates under 25 facing an adjusted youth-unemployment rate of more than 20 percent.
Yet the well-off are more interested in ensuring that their children get into tony, name-brand colleges than in fretting about how to pay for it — a fact well known to our price-gauging universities.
On the other end, need- and ethnic-based scholarships and waivers have made college more affordable for the poor than it is for the middle class. The parents of the latter make enough to be disqualified from most government help, but not enough to afford soaring tuition.
Banks find student loans backed by government guarantees profitable. Top-heavy universities assume that there will always be more income from the subsidized poor and the rich. Again, middle-class students are caught up a creek without the paddles of wealthy parents or a generous government.
There is also a populist argument to be made against the farm bill. There are more than 48 million Americans on food stamps, an increase of about 12 million since the beginning of the Obama presidency. At a time of record-high crop prices, the U.S. government still helps well-off farmers with about $20 billion in annual crop payouts and indirect subsidies.
The left mythicizes food-stamp recipients almost as if they all must be the Cratchits of Dickensian England. The right romanticizes corporate agriculture as if the growers are all hardscrabble family farmers in need of a little boost to get through another tough harvest.
Those in between, who pay federal income taxes and are not on food stamps, lack the empathy of the poor and the clout of the rich. Can’t a politician say that?
Illegal immigration is likewise not a left versus right or Republican versus Democrat issue, but instead mostly one of class.
The influx of millions of illegal immigrants has ensured corporate America access to cheap labor while offering a growing constituency for political and academic elites.
Yet the earning power of poorer American workers — especially blacks and Hispanics — has stagnated.
The common bond between the agendas of La Raza activists and the corporate world is apparently a relative lack of concern for the welfare of entry-level laborers, many of them in American inner cities, who are competing against millions of illegal workers.