Can Populism Be Popular?

Al Gore’s rhetorical shift in emphasis during the campaign, from fiscal responsibility to a form of populism addressed to “working families,” calls for some discussion. The Democrats spent years repositioning themselves as “New Democrats,” a party of moderates. This was an effort in which both Bill Clinton and Gore were closely involved through most of their political careers. Candidates not just for president of the United States, but also for Congress and state and local offices, and for the chief executive positions in Britain, Germany, and Israel, have successfully run on the new moderate liberalism. So Gore’s shift seems a surprise, although less so, perhaps, in view of George W. Bush’s appropriating some of the New Democrats’ territory with his rhetoric of “compassionate conservatism.”

For years, too, Democrats who would not call themselves New Democrats have been meeting, thinking, and reformulating a Democratic policy without most of us much noticing, and out of these efforts have come several distinct competing prescriptions to help their party win elections without moving it to the center. Two such prescriptions are at hand in the most recent books by Theda Skocpol and John Judis. (Skocpol’s book, in fact, calls upon the Democrats to use the catch phrase “working families.”) If Gore wins the election while maintaining his present positions, then the questions of what kinds of policies his new populist slogans would suggest and how or whether they can be put into effect become important. Both books under review are useful in suggesting at least what the tenor of Washington debate might be, if not what, if any, actual changes might occur.

Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard, and John Judis, an author and writer for The New Republic and The American Prospect, are both prolific advocates of social reform. Judis, who began his career as a writer for the Chicago socialist weekly In These Times, and Skocpol, whose first two published books were called States and Social Revolutions and Marxist Inquiries, might once have described themselves as democratic socialists, and might now describe themselves as social democrats. Both are disturbed about the high disparity in wealth in the United States: today the richest one half percent of America’s taxpayers receive 11 percent of its total income. Both believe the level of “social provision” (Skocpol’s term) ought to be increased. Both support greater government intervention in the economy—Judis mostly in the form of labor and trade legislation, Skocpol mostly in the form of entitlement programs. More generally, they both believe that the national government ought to take a larger part in the effort to improve the economic, political, and social situation of people with income below the median.

In other countries these goals tend to be pursued in a straightforward way: a party of the left is formed which seeks to gain as much influence and power as it can. But in America such parties have only very rarely been more than marginal …

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