Now even the DLC is stealing Dean's populist agenda and attributing it to Kerry and Edwards. Can anyone tell me why I should vote for Kerry or Edwards when they have this neo-con Democratic bullshit backing them????
The Right Kind of "Populism
If the decline of the once-invincible Dean campaign is one big story in the Democratic presidential nominating process, the other is the rise of two candidates, Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, who were written off and left for dead by the "experts" long before the actual voting began.
As we've noted before, this development should not be all that mysterious. Sen. Kerry has the same qualities today -- a stirring biography, solid foreign policy and national security credentials, a deep mastery of issues, toughness and self-discipline, and an ability to attract all sorts of Democrats -- that made him the early frontrunner at the beginning of 2003. Sen. Edwards has combined an impressive array of new policy ideas, an optimistic tone, and a powerful speaking style into a message that appealed to voters far more than to jaded pundits. Both men have taken to heart former President Clinton's advice that successful challengers to incumbent presidents must provide both a reasoned critique of administration policies and a clear alternative agenda for the country.
But much of the fire that Kerry and Edwards have brought to the campaign trail is based on what some call "populism" -- a sustained attack on the special interests aligned with George W. Bush and the privileged individuals and corporations that have most benefited from his rule. It's important for Democrats to understand this particular kind of populist appeal, and what it does and does not mean, because populism is one of those words that mean very different things to different people.
At its best, populism is a term for any kind of appeal to the broad swath of Americans who work hard and play by the rules, as opposed to the few who rely on privilege and connections. This approach, as Bill Clinton showed, is entirely consistent with a unifying, forward-looking policy agenda that places the national interest, as embodied in the values and aspirations of the great American middle class, above special interests, including those operating through government, who seek to use public policies to feather their own nests.
This sort of populism is entirely appropriate at a time when the federal government is in the hands of an administration that is determined, as a matter of principle and practice, to reward privilege, solidify its power, and protect its friends from both public oversight and the rigors of market competition. And this sort of populism is what Sens. Kerry and Edwards are embracing in their stump speeches on the campaign trail. It opposes unearned privileges and crony capitalism, not work-based success or genuine free enterprise. It demands equal opportunity, not equal results. And it favors an intelligent approach to shaping the forces of globalization to reflect American interests and values, not a retreat from the rest of the world.
A good example of a full-throated agenda to advance this sort of "positive populism" can be found in Al From and Bruce Reed's latest political memo in Blueprint magazine, proposing a "new bargain with the middle class and those aspiring to get there."
But there's a second kind of populism as well, closer to the historic populism of the 19th century, that represents not a progressive call for elevating the national interest over special interests, but a reactionary demand for class warfare and the rejection of economic and social progress. This is the sort of populism represented by Ralph Nader, Michael Moore, and others on the left, who believe that capitalism itself is fatally flawed, and that the primary mission of government is to redistribute wealth rather than to expand opportunity for all Americans to earn it. The inherently reactionary nature of this second kind of populism violates the progressive principles that most Democrats share, and offends the optimistic, pro-opportunity values that most Americans share. The true mission of the Democratic Party is not to vilify capitalism or decry success, but to offer a positive plan to make sure that every American willing to work for it has the chance to get ahead.
As Bill Clinton showed in 1992, if Democrats couple a populist critique with real answers to expand opportunity for all Americans, Republicans lose the argument on both counts. On the other hand, as Democrats learned in 2000, relying too much on the critique alone runs the risk of drowning out the answers. Positive populism is the Democratic Party's historic mission. Negative populism is a dead-end street.
Democrats also need to remember that it's not enough to keep markets and privilege in line with the values and interests of ordinary people. They need to keep government in line with those values and interests, too.
For decades, Republicans have tried to deflect attention from their relentless defense of special privilege by cynically and successfully stoking a third kind of populism: anti-government populism.
As DLC policy director Ed Kilgore argues in the current issue of Blueprint, anti-government populism is a big part of the political strategy of the Bush White House in 2004:
"The domestic politics of George W. Bush's Republican Party are based on a large strategic gamble: that the great American middle class will accept policies that reward and reinforce economic privilege -- individual and corporate -- so long as they are perceived as disadvantaging big government and the interest groups that depend on big government.
"It's a gamble that could well succeed if Democrats respond by simply defending big government and acting as agents of interest groups. That's why it is supremely important that Democrats make the case that the Bush administration's domestic policies aren't simply a fight between the wealthy and the government, in which middle-class Americans can choose sides or remain neutral, as they wish. Democrats must show that Bush and the GOP are, in fact, doing real damage to the pocketbooks, the aspirations, and the values of the middle class."
The right kind of populism for Democrats is one that champions the values and interests of the forgotten middle-class, exposes the special-interest orientation of today's Republican Party, and promises to bend government to the broad national interest in a growing economy, a strong and confident role for America in the world, and a new willingness to meet the big challenges facing us as a community. As President Andrew Jackson said, the mission of the Democratic Party and America is clear: "Equal opportunity for all, special privilege for none."