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Populism is Not Enough

I am usually the last person to minimize the importance of populist talk in American politics. Back in the 1990s, I wrote a book, The Populist Persuasion: An American History, arguing that leaders and movements that have credibly portrayed themselves as champions of the moral, hard-working majority against a wealthy, self-serving elite have been able to make the policies they desire seem both just and sensible.

So, along with John Judis, who wrote this week’s cover story, I do wish Barack Obama had begun to attack Wall Street banks and greedy bonus takers from the early days of his administration—well before the Republicans were able to brand him as the president of bail-outs, a waffling yuppie whose wife and daughter can fly off to Spain to vacation at a five-star hotel.

But Judis is wrong to blame the shortcomings of Obama’s presidency primarily on that failure. There is something more fundamental going on here: Obama has failed to advocate passionately and honestly for a new way of understanding the relationship between the people and their government. That failure has left intact the hegemony of conservatism over the body politic—a hegemony that began to take hold during Jimmy Carter’s term in office and has held on tenaciously since then, as neither Bill Clinton nor Obama have made a serious attempt to counter it.

Judis is also a little careless in his use of history. He credits both FDR and Reagan with finding “a way of using populism’s appeal during downturns” to keep most Americans on their side. But FDR didn’t begin to thunder consistently against “economic royalists” and the like until he began to run for re-election in 1936; he was already well ahead in the race when he did so. In the early 80s, Reagan’s popularity hovered under 40 percent when the economy was in recession. He didn’t become “the Great Communicator” until the jobless rate receded.

However, what Obama should learn from the example of both presidents is that each understood the need to replace an outmoded ideological paradigm with a compelling new one suited to the present and future. All that talk of “hope” and “change” was enough to win an election against a stumbling Republican opponent who was weighed down by the debacles of the Bush years. But since taking office, Obama has shied away from ideological pronouncements, talking instead about finding some sort of vague bipartisan consensus on major policies. But FDR and Reagan were transformative presidents because both understood the need to elevate motivation over process—to speak clearly, proudly, and, yes, repetitiously about a new kind of politics.

Each man had a name for that politics—liberal in FDR’s case; conservative in Reagan’s. Obama’s talk of a “New Foundation,” with which Judis begins his piece, was not just abandoned because it sounded like a piece of decades-old women’s underwear. It did not communicate how Obama would be different from the conservative Republicans and center-right Democrats who occupied the White House in the three decades before him.

Obama may be psychologically averse to populist talk. But that would not matter so much if he had the skill and the courage to speak about how he and his fellow Democrats want to govern the country and why his vision is far better than anything the hard-right GOP has to offer. He needs a name for that vision; liberal is still available but needs some redefinition. He also has to find a way to explain how his various policies—health care, immigration reform, financial regulation, the stimulus, and, perhaps the right of Muslims to build a new community center in lower Manhattan—fit into an attractive whole. Without such a synthesis, the liberal revival many expected after the 2008 election will indeed be stillborn—and populist-spouting conservatives like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich who have no solutions to any of the problems that plague us will keep driving the political discourse of the most powerful nation on earth. As Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist who argued that ideological “hegemony” was the critical element in politics, once wrote, “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.”