Bad economic times breed angry politics. We remain in bad economic times, irrespective of what our leaders in Washington say, and the political climate is getting more and more angry. America is moving into a period of heightened populism of both left and right. The result will be increasing political polarization on top of the polarization we already have experienced in recent years. The next couple of election cycles will be raucous.
To understand all this, it helps to understand populism as a recurrent American political impulse and also to understand its conservative and liberal variants.
As a general outlook, populism is the angry response of people who feel abused by people and institutions more wealthy or more powerful than themselves. It could be the followers of President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s, who thrilled at his effort to kill the Second Bank of the United States because it represented too much concentrated economic power. It could be the Southern farmer circa 1890 — beset by a constricted money supply, low crop prices and pressures from the town banker — who felt that the politicians always seemed to favor that banker over him. It could be the followers of Louisiana’s Huey Long in the 1930s, who felt that the great villain of the Depression era was the big financial establishment of Wall Street.
The central cry of the populist is the need to smash institutions of entrenched power that, in the populist view, distort the American system to benefit themselves at the expense of the broad mass of citizens. When William Jennings Bryan, one of history’s greatest populists, ran for president in 1896, his campaign was touted as “the masses vs. the classes.” Populists particularly go after people who can be labeled as American “oligarchs” or “plutocrats.”
There are two strains of populism in the American political tradition, though — liberal and conservative. Both are rising in today’s political environment.
The central target of liberal populism is the wealthy — in today’s political lexicon, the so-called “1 percent.” Large financial institutions and big corporations also are found in the cross hairs of these populists. Their main goal is to redistribute wealth, which means they must enlist government as their ally. And they evince few concerns about powerful labor unions. They want to enlarge federal transfer payments, increase income taxes on the wealthy, make payroll taxes progressive, increase estate taxes and bolster business regulation.
Whenever liberal populism emerges as a significant political force in America, as it is currently, its spawning ground is the Democratic Party, although Democratic fundraising (on Wall Street, for example) sometimes creates alignments that militate against the populist ethos. Current liberal populists of prominence within the party include University of California at Berkeley’s Robert B. Reich, a former Clinton administration Cabinet secretary; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; and Paul Krugman of Princeton University and The New York Times.
Conservative populists, if they are true to their heritage going back to Andrew Jackson, despise bigness in all forms — big business, big finance, big labor and big government. They aren’t particularly exercised by the wealthy, except when their wealth is used to tilt life’s playing field. They particularly despise cozy alignments between government and these other institutions. “Crony capitalism” drives them nuts.
Although the Republican Party has been soft on big business and big finance for much of its history, conservative populists tend to view the GOP as their most natural home, particularly given its aversion to big government and regulatory intrusiveness in the private economy.
If today’s leading manifestation of conservative populism is the Tea Party, the leading manifestation of liberal populism is the burgeoning assault on “economic inequality” — the growing gap between the income and wealth of the truly wealthy and the income and wealth of the rest of society. There has been some distortion of this in recent political discourse. Some commentators have put forth the notion that the middle and bottom quintiles actually have regressed economically in recent decades, while the wealth of the top quintile has soared. This is false. While the economic standing of all quintiles has increased, the gap has widened significantly, and this still represents an economic reality that could become politically incendiary in coming years, particularly if the economy continues to sputter or begins to decline.
The two populisms share some views and outlooks. They both want to smash the big banks of Wall Street. They both oppose the ability of big corporations to maneuver through the marketplace by getting special treatment and big-bailout largesse from the federal government. They also both view the nation’s politics as being distorted by malign forces and alliances. This convergence could become politically potent in coming years.
The divergence of outlook between the two populisms also could breed considerable political tension. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s assault on his state’s public-employee unions represented a major initiative of conservative populism, but liberal populists fought him tooth and nail. Certainly the conservatives’ animosity toward the size and intrusiveness of the federal government will be resisted by liberal populists at every turn.
The central point is that populism of both strains is on the rise and, thus, America is moving into an era of increasingly angry politics. Where the two strains come together, the political establishment will be under serious pressure. Where they diverge, major new political fault lines will emerge.
In both instances, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Robert W. Merry, political editor of The National Interest, is the author most recently of “Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians” (Simon & Schuster, 2012).