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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. In the national elections of 1892 and 1894 the Populists won over a million votes. In 1896, with William Jennings Bryan’s run for the presidency as a Democrat, populist sentiment peaked: Bryan won more than six million popular votes (although only 152 electoral votes). It was downhill from there. Under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs, the Socialists got more than 900,000 votes in the presidential elections of 1912 and 1920, but then faded away.

For the past eighty years left-wing parties have been marginal to national politics. Ralph Nader’s Green Party can at best serve to put pressure on the Democrats for reforms, and at worst cause a Democratic defeat. Today even organized labor, much revived after John J. Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO in 1995, represents an ever-decreasing portion of the workforce (now at 13.9 percent) and is hardly strong enough to start its own political party. Under Sweeney’s leadership labor did put $35 million into various Democratic campaigns in 1996, which surely made a difference in the fortunes of President Clinton and many members of Congress.

Yet there have been enough periods when the country seemed to be moving to “the left”—that is, closer to the goals of income redistribution and expansion of the welfare state—to keep hope alive for their fulfillment. Because any hope for a successful party of the left seems vain, the question arises whether a more indirect approach will move the American polity in a more egalitarian direction. (“Movement” conservatives who believe in reducing the size and power of government and lowering taxes carry on a debate similar to the left’s over the best means of advancing their cause.)

The country last seemed to be moving left during the mid-Sixties and early Seventies—the period bounded by the presidential election of Lyndon Johnson and the reelection of Richard Nixon. Although income inequality decreased during those years (the top 5 percent of households received 16.6 percent of national income in 1968, as compared to 21.4 percent in 1998) and the government’s effect on social and economic life increased, the demands expressed by the activists of the Sixties were not mainly about economics and the size of the federal government. In their rhetoric, civil rights and minority advancement generally, an end to the Vietnam War, a strong environmental policy, greater individual freedom, and, later, equality for women were paramount. As national politics became more conservative during the Seventies, the question of why the ideology of the Sixties had proven so perishable was more than wistful. The standard answer was that a stable political order cannot be built on crusades for social justice and personal liberation. The causes of the Sixties did not have the support of strong enough organizations or a large enough political constituency. And, perhaps more importantly, they were perceived as benefiting unpopular groups, such as African-Americans and the poor, rather than the middle class. To sell a program with an argument like “It’s the right thing to do” or “It will help black people” is to doom it to failure.

When President Clinton took office, it was obvious that he had heard this theory. William Julius Wilson, the Harvard professor who is one of the country’s leading social democrats, was one of Clinton’s informal advisers on social policy, and Clinton’s chief pollster in those days, Stanley Greenberg, is another prominent American social democrat.1 In his speeches Clinton talked frequently about the problems of working people and the middle class, about those of poor people very rarely, if at all. Indeed, one of his campaign promises in 1992 was to “end welfare as we know it”—meaning, it turned out, close down Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the country’s leading program aimed at the poor—and another was to introduce a program of universal health insurance, which would affect millions of people (and presumably cement their loyalty to the Democratic Party). Part of the appeal of health care reform was that it was also a way to help the most needy Americans without its being labeled, as AFDC was, a program for the disadvantaged. By far the biggest social program that Clinton managed to get through Congress was a $21 billion (spread over five years) expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit—a subsidy for the working poor, not the very worst off. If you don’t have a job, the Earned Income Tax Credit does you no good.

The year that Clinton was elected president, Theda Skocpol published her ambitious book Protecting Soldiers and Mothers.2 In this historical account of government-benefit programs, she shows that the most successful were those aimed at helping people who came across to the public as admirable, or at least unthreatening. Her best example is the generous pensions for Civil War veterans, which, she shows, were central to the Republican Party’s rise during the late nineteenth century. The party that today claims to be the enemy of big government and tax-and-spend policies would never have become dominant in the early twentieth century, according to Skocpol, if it hadn’t put tax revenues into the hands of Civil War veterans, who thus became the party’s core constituency.3

Four years later, Skocpol published Boomerang,4 a short book that documented the conception and collapse of the Clintons’ health care plan. The book was based on confidential White House papers, which she had managed to gain access to. In it, Skocpol persuasively blames the failure of health care reform on the Clintons’ fear of raising taxes to cover the cost of the program. The money to pay for broader health care coverage was to come not from the government but from employers, according to a highly complicated set of rules. These, she writes, added hundreds of pages to the final version of the bill, which made it an easy target for caricature, particularly by conservatives. The public never clearly understood the bill, small-business interest groups opposed it, and Skocpol, unlike many other observers, seems to believe it was doomed from the start. Yet however flawed the Clintons’ plan was, Skocpol ends Boomerang by asking whether any proposal at all for an ambitious new government program could have much chance of success. It is this question that Skocpol directly addresses in her most recent book, The Missing Middle.

For the last few years Skocpol has been examining the history of membership organizations in the United States. American intellectuals have recently become quite interested in promoting “civil society.” Both liberal social theorists like Harvard’s Robert Putnam5 and conservative religious thinkers like Boston University’s Peter Berger, whose work over the years forms part of the foundation on which Bush’s idea of “compassionate conservatism” rests, consider the genius of American society to reside in small, voluntary local organizations that stand apart from, or even in opposition to, government. Some of these—churches, community-development groups, and business cooperatives—perform social welfare functions, though only within their own neighborhoods. Skocpol has made a contrary argument: that while it is true that since the early nineteenth century, Americans have been forming local groups, the most effective of them became national, and were successful in pressing for government benefits.

Veterans’ organizations are an example. In addition to those for Civil War veterans that Skocpol described in Protecting Soldiers and Mothers, the American Legion was responsible for the college education provision in the GI Bill after World War II, an entitlement that was opposed by many leading educators, including James Bryant Conant of Harvard. If people were to participate more actively in local associations, Skocpol thinks, they would naturally move on toward broader, that is, national, political activity, and this activity would in turn have the effect of helping to expand the welfare state. In other words, it’s only a few steps from beer on Wednesday nights at the VFW hall to getting Congress to pass a bill for veterans’ benefits.

We’ve been so heavily conditioned to think of interest groups as a negative force in American politics that Skocpol’s argument that they should be encouraged seems at first startling. But they are the bedrock, she believes, on which a good society rests. The trouble with the country today, she maintains, is that the kind of interest groups she favors, groups that would press for government benefits for ordinary people, aren’t powerful enough. The most prominent among them, like the American Association of Retired Persons, are not genuine local organizations; that is, rather than having active members who meet face to face, they are simply giant mailing lists run by political consultants.

  1. 1

    Greenberg was coeditor with Theda Skocpol of the essay collection The New Majority: Toward a Popular Progressive Politics (Yale University Press, 1997) and is Gore’s chief pollster.

  2. 2

    Harvard University Press, 1992.

  3. 3

    These pensions took about 45 percent of the federal government’s receipts in 1900.

  4. 4

    Norton, 1996.

  5. 5

    See his recent book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon and Schuster, 2000), reviewed by Alan Ryan in The New York Review, August 10, 2000.

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