CAN THE POPULIST MOMENT LAST?

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BY BENJAMIN ROSS | Originally in Dissent Spring 2007

Newly elected Senator Jon Tester, reports the New York Times, is “your grandfather’s Democrat—a pro-gun, anti-big-business prairie pragmatist whose life is defined by the treeless patch of hard Montana dirt that has been in the family since 1916.”

Virginia’s new senator, Jim Webb, is an ex-marine who served as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the navy and writes novels celebrating the fighting heritage of the Scots-Irish. He writes that “The most important—and unfortunately the least debated—issue in politics today is our society’s steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century.”

Pennsylvanians elected Senator Bob Casey, who is as much anti-abortion as he is pro-union. Former National Football League quarterback Heath Shuler of North Carolina won election to the House on a similar program, and joined the next day in a press conference with the new Ohio senator, Sherrod Brown, to denounce unfair trade agreements.

It is not an undifferentiated Democratic tide that swept these candidates into office, but a distinctly populist one. The strategy urged on the party by establishment opinion—an appeal to upscale suburbs that couples firmness on national security with economic and social moderation—repeatedly fell short. Both Webb and Tester won primaries against business-oriented opponents backed by party leaders before going on to defeat Republican senators. And the only Democratic Senate candidate in a close race who ran as an economic centrist, Tennessee’s Harold Ford, was the only one to lose.

The trend toward populism was visible among voters as well as candidates. Rural and blue-collar voters swung toward Democrats, most notably in the economically distressed belt stretching from upstate New York to Indiana. The party also picked up House seats in Kansas, Iowa, and western North Carolina.

The populist temper of the electorate has an obverse side; signs appear that the half-century-long swing toward Democrats among the wealthy and well educated may be coming to an end. From 2000 to 2004, George W. Bush gained more votes in the affluent coastal belt from southwestern Connecticut to northern Delaware than almost anywhere else. Similar phenomena appear in the 2006 returns, with Republicans holding contested House seats in upscale suburbs that had been leaning Democratic. Districts that bucked the Democratic tide contain the hedge fund havens of Greenwich and Stamford in Connecticut, the home of Microsoft outside Seattle, and some of Chicago’s wealthiest suburbs. In the strongly Democratic state of Maryland, Republican governor Bob Ehrlich improved on his 2002 performance in many affluent suburban precincts of Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties while running 10 percent behind his previous score in heavily blue-collar Baltimore County.

WHAT ACCOUNTS for the populist resurgence? Unquestionably, Democratic voters in 2006 responded to the mounting economic costs of globalization and the human costs of the Iraq War, and those who bear a disproportionate share of those costs responded most strongly. Conversely, the relatively strong Republican performance among affluent cosmopolitans is hard to explain in any other way than as a reflection of the country’s growing economic and social stratification.

But these shifts in the electorate are too slight to be the full explanation. The range of views to be found among the Democratic Party’s newly elected representatives and senators has moved much further than that of the party’s voters. Public support for a higher minimum wage and opposition to trade agreements are only marginally greater than they were a few years ago, and it is doubtful that there has been any shift regarding gun control or abortion rights. Opinion has, to be sure, turned vehemently against the war in Iraq, but although support for the war has fallen further in rural blue-collar communities than elsewhere, that is in part because it had further to fall. The drift toward populism in public opinion is one of degree, and a modest degree at that, while the wave of populist, socially conservative senators is a change of kind.

The economically liberal and socially conservative have always been a large segment of the electorate. A 1999 Pew Research Center survey categorized one-third of all Democrats in a “socially conservative” group. Together with the “partisan poor” who had similarly traditional attitudes on religious and social issues, they made up the majority of all Democratic voters. Nearly a third of Republicans fell into a “populist” group that had decidedly anti-business views. Yet in the Congress of that year there were few Democrats, and certainly no Republicans, with such combinations of opinions. What caused the severe underrepresentation of populist voters in Congress, and what changed to enable populists to arrive with such sudden force?

The answer to this question lies in the enduring inequalities of class. Numbers do not translate automatically into political power. For one thing, the media are dominated by elite opinion, in its divisions over social issues and in its agreements about economics. On issues such as trade and the minimum wage, where elite and mass diverge most sharply, the views of the great majority of the American people are presented as the fringe of the debate. The fundamental human right of workers to organize earns hardly a mention.

An even more important factor is the financing of political campaigns. The cost of campaigns has skyrocketed since the 1970s; a serious challenge for a House seat costs upward of a million dollars, and Senate races often exceed ten million. Economic progressives have found it hard to keep pace with the rising price of politics. Unions, with their membership stagnant, were unable to compete in the financial arms race; the Catholic and Jewish ethnic networks that helped pay for New Deal-era campaigns moved to the right on economics as memories of immigrant generations faded; and the generation of progressive political donors formed by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War had less inclination to Democratic partisanship than the generation formed by the New Deal and the Second World War.

By the 1990s, Democratic campaigns relied heavily on single-issue contributors motivated by noneconomic issues—feminism, the environment, gay rights, gun control, and others. The party also drew its funds from relatively friendly business interests in such sectors as entertainment, finance, and computer software. Between these two groups there was considerable overlap in views, and frequently in membership, with the business people inclined toward social liberalism and the social liberals often sharing the globalist views of the businesses. An across-the-board progressive like Paul Wellstone could still mobilize social liberals to finance his campaigns. But candidates of the stripe of Jim Webb and Heath Shuler were largely shut out of the process.

IN THE WANING years of the George W. Bush era, the politics of campaign finance has changed entirely. Money floods into Democratic coffers driven by outrage at the Iraq War, the erosion of civil liberties, and the influence of a religious right that has become part of the Republican Party machine. Although most of the individual contributors probably hold more or less the same opinions about questions of public policy as the single-issue donors of the 1990s, they are motivated by a profoundly different political outlook. Democrats have become thoroughly partisan. Their overriding objective is to end Republican control of the government. To that end, any Democrat with a chance of winning will be supported—and in most of the places where seats can be gained, that means populists.

The last few years have been a time for putting party before issues. Iowa Caucus-goers of 2004 rejected Howard Dean in the hope of defeating Bush, and the bloggers of 2006 promoted the insurgent primary candidacies of social conservatives Webb and Tester. Among donors, similarly, partisanship trumps economics. The paychecks of thousand-dollar campaign contributors will surely not be enlarged by a higher minimum wage, yet they cheer Nancy Pelosi’s determination to put this vote-winning issue at the top of her agenda. Democratic candidates, assured of the funds needed to run a campaign, are set free to represent voters rather than money.

It is this rapid change in the temper of the political class, and of its campaign-contributing subclass specifically, that fueled the sudden populist surge of 2006. When this partisan temper cools, as it will if Democrats recapture the presidency in 2008, the populist tide will inevitably recede with it. That is not because populist voters will be less numerous, but because the conditions will be less favorable for translating their numbers into political power.

The tide will recede, but it will not likely fall back to its previous ebb. Political motion develops its own momentum, and especially so when it carries a previously excluded group into the halls of power. Once included in the political debate, populist views will be hard to shut out. Democratic contributors educated by the 2006 election returns will remain open to supporting populist candidates. The loss of economic security in an era of globalization will continue to draw voters’ attention to social inequalities. And, we may hope, Democrats will seize this populist moment to enact structural reforms in campaign finance and union rights, so that the votes of the many carry a little more weight against the campaign contributions of the few.

Benjamin Ross is a community activist in Maryland. He writes frequently for Dissent.

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