Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Right Kind of Populism

From liberal writers such as Thomas Frank to the former VP nominee John Edwards, many see a hope for a resurgence of the Left grounded in an economic populism that is largely absent from today’s Democratic Party. While economic populism has significant merits and helped propel Democrats to decades of political power in the U.S. Congress for the second half of the 20th century, the populist narratives being put forth by the new crop of Democratic hopefuls and strategists is too focused on criticizing the rich (whether top income earners or CEOs) instead of stressing opportunities for those in the middle-income and lower classes.

America, after all, is a country much more concerned with equal opportunity than equal outcomes. While Americans might envy or even resent the wealthy, more than anything they hope to one day join their ranks. Americans are comfortable with much higher levels of income inequality than other advanced industrial societies’, therefore, continually harping on the excesses of the rich is not a winning strategy. Focusing on ways by which everyone can have a chance at upwards mobility is (especially at a time when this mobility is decreasing).

While the Left continues to believe that it alone stands between the poor masses and the crooked CEOs ready to exploit them, the Right has produced its own populist narrative called the “ownership society.” The concept has wide appeal to many Americans because with ownership comes a sense of permanence that shifting political winds can’t easily take away, in contrast to battles over entitlements such as Social Security where benefits can change due simply to Congressional legislation.

Whereas most people would love to own their assets, they may not have the initial capital necessary to do so, and they also desire a social safety net since many assets are susceptible to erratic market forces. Herein lies the entry point for a critique of the ownership society that the Left has yet to put forth effectively. In addition, the Right’s ownership society is almost completely silent on the issue of health care (apart from the small moves towards personalized “health accounts”). This is precisely where the greatest public angst resides, since medical costs continue to soar and insurance is becoming ever more tenuous.

All of this bodes well for the Left (and Democrats) if only they could spend more time focusing on providing basic access to opportunity and security for all Americans instead of lambasting corporate CEOs and bemoaning growing income inequality in society. To repeat, lower and middle-class Americans are much more open to a narrative based on allowing them a better chance at improving their lot, along with a stronger safety net, than on simply pointing out how poor they are relative to the wealthy.

This brings up another important issue. There is a strain of thought on the Far Left that believes that income inequality is bad in and of itself regardless of the minimum standard of living in society, because it generates a sense of inferiority in the lower classes who are always relatively poorer. There is no doubt that income inequality does create some social tensions as there will always be those who want to keep up with the Joneses regardless of their standard of absolute material well-being. On this issue, however, I come down on what would likely be considered a conservative viewpoint. For two primary reasons, I think there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a society in which some individuals are ultra-wealthy. The first is the simple fact that I am much more concerned with people having their basic needs met than worrying about how many Bill Gateses there are in the world (who by the way may be doing more than any other single individual to satisfy people’s basic needs through the work of his foundation). Second, we must allow for some human agency in the equation. Most middle class Americans today enjoy a level of wealth that was beyond the wildest dreams of most of the world’s elite even a hundred years ago; we have (multiple) cars, refrigerators filled with food from around the world, access (even if limited) to top-rate medical care, enjoy long life spans, and travel the globe. The fact that some may feel want because they don’t have a private jet or can’t buy Tiffany earrings does not engender any sympathy on my part. I believe there must be a point at which people come to appreciate how much they actually have, and not allow their sense of place in the world to be swayed by those who happen to have more than they do. To be forever unsatisfied is one of modern humanity’s greatest psychological shortcomings (at least in America), but it will never be cured through heavy-handed government attempts at income and wealth equalization.

In summary, while populist themes still resonate with most Americans, they must be centered on the quintessential American belief in equal opportunity, not equal outcomes. The Left does itself a disservice when it focuses a disproportionate share of its attention on the excesses of the wealthy, rather than on the decreasing lack of mobility for the lower and middle classes.

J.S.

J.S.'s Novel: As It Was In The Beginning

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