“Populism” is a word that gets thrown around with abandon by folks masquerading as journalists on television these days. Sarah Palin had the word used to describe her, and later, the entire Tea Party movement was labelled “populist” by the chattering classes. Today, President Obama unveiled a truly populist agenda, by proposing to tax millionaires at the same tax rate that middle-class Americans pay. By doing so, Obama will (hopefully) redefine the term “populism” in the political conversation. Or, to be technical, he will re-redefine the word back to what it originally meant.
Because while Sarah Palin can (barely) make the case that she’s a populist (she did take on oil companies as governor), the Tea Party simply cannot make the same argument. Lazy inside-the-Beltway types began using the word “populism” to describe the Tea Party when they really should have said something like “popular movement,” or even “grassroots.” Washingtonians apparently were ready to slap the “populist” label onto any political action which took place outside the Beltway. The lesson to be learned is: spend five minutes researching a term, if you really don’t know what it means. But it’s a pretty safe bet this lesson will not, in fact, be learned by the media at large.
It’s easy enough to see why the media get confused. Here’s a snippet of a speech given at the very first Populist Party convention, in 1892:
“We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress… We seek to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of the ‘plain people’.”
This could easily be cheered at a Tea Party rally today, one might think. But when you examine what the Populists were actually for and against, you can see why this connection simply cannot be made (at least not with a straight face).
A little over a century ago, the Populist movement began. We differentiate between this original Populism and today’s populists with proper capitalisation. Populists back then (“big-P” Populists, in other words) were indeed a political movement to put power in the hands of the people. But that’s where the likeness to today’s Tea Partiers ends. Because Populists were not against big government, they were against corrupt government — quite a large distinction to make. Populists were for direct election of senators, for instance, because of the cronyism in the statehouses at the time. Some Tea Partiers today champion getting rid of the Sixteenth Amendment, for reasons which surpass understanding. Populists were behind giving voters direct power, not only for electing senators but also for recalling politicians and the direct democracy of the ballot initiative. Populists were also for a graduated income tax — so the wealthy would pay a higher percentage. The Right has for years been arguing for a “flat tax” which would do away with such Populist ideas.
But the main thrust of the Populist movement was economic. Populists were, quite bluntly, against big business, Wall Street, and East Coast banks. They were against monopolies such as the railroads of the era. They favoured the federal government getting involved in this fight, and even favoured a federal takeover of the rail system and the telegraph system (and they weren’t talking about some namby-pamby “bailout,” they were talking about straight-up, no-chaser “nationalization” of both). Populists were rabidly anti-big-business, whereas today’s Tea Party seems to want to return to an era with no business regulations whatsoever. The Ayn-Randian, free-market-worshipping position of many Tea Partiers is exactly the opposite of Populism, in other words.
One thing the Populists and the Tea Partiers would undoubtedly see eye-to-eye on (to be fair, here) is Ron Paul’s insistence on American returning to the gold standard. The Populists were around during the monumental fights over free coinage of silver (and the gold standard) back in the 1890s.
The Populists did have an ugly side, to be historically accurate. They were fiercely anti-immigrant, for example — for the same reasons bandied about today (“They’re taking our jobs!”). And the disgraceful leap from hating “Eastern bankers” to outright anti-Semitism was one which more than a few Populists made, as well. So while Populists did advance the progress of American democracy in many important ways, they were far from flawless when viewed through the lens of today’s ethical and moral standards.
Enough history, though, let’s get back to the announcement President Obama made today. Now, what Obama proposed today is not really anything new, in more than one sense. In the first place, Obama has spoken of taxing the wealthier among us at a slightly higher rate for years now. In the second place, Senator Charles Schumer has been pushing the idea of a “millionaires’ tax” for months now. Obama has now embraced the idea fully, though, which is why he’s making news. Campaign 2012 has begun, in other words, and Obama has staked out a mighty populist position from which to run.
Again, this should really come as no surprise to anyone, but I’m often astounded at how short the memories are in the Washington punditocracy. The president set this entire scene up last December, with the deal he cut to extend the Bush tax cuts. At the time, more attention was paid to the wailing of Democrats over the two-year extension, but what I found most interesting was the timing of it. Right after the deal was announced (which I was calling “The Deal” at the time), I wrote (emphasis in original):
It has been reported that the White House was the one to insist on a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts for millionaires. I warned them not to do this, personally, because that puts the next giant tax cut fight right in the middle of the 2012 election season.
Obama, to put it in poker terms, has gone “all in” on this being a central fight during his re-election campaign. He didn’t need to do so. He could have punted altogether by getting a three-year extension, which would have put the debate comfortably into the next presidential term. He could have forced the debate during the primary season, by getting a one-year extension. Obama did neither. The White House is calculating that this will be a great debate to have in 2012, when (assumably) the economy is doing better and people are feeling more positive about the future of the country. Obama is staking a lot on leading the Democratic side of this debate, right when American voters will be paying close attention.
This, to put it mildly, is a risky strategy.
At the time, I wondered if Democrats would have the president’s back. I still wonder this, although there were hopeful signs from Schumer today, who was quoted in the Huffington Post:
“This is a game changer in the tax debate. It will make the Republican position almost indefensible. The president has a winning hand, and he is going all in. And I believe Democrats will be behind him. … Just about every Democrat will be behind him.”
We’ll see whether this proves to be true or not. Because, like it or not, Democrats are going to be presented with populism as the centrepiece of the 2012 campaign. The idea of taxing millionaires fairly is actually a very popular one (as well as being a truly populist one), as poll after poll shows. However, Democrats have not actually run on “tax the rich” in many a long year, so their populist skills may prove to be a bit rusty.
So far, about the most populist thing the Obama administration has done was to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and to elevate Elizabeth Warren to such stature that she can now make a viable run to reclaim Teddy Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts. Her campaign will likely be a model example of how Democrats can run on a modern populist message.
President Obama knows, of course, that none of his tax ideas are ever going to see the light of day from the Republican House. His jobs plan may not fare much better, although it’s at least conceivable that portions of it may be passed. No portion of his ideas on taxing millionaires will be, however. His announcement today — which even included a veto threat — was meant to define his upcoming campaign. By doing so, he may reclaim and redefine (or “define back to the original meaning”) the term “populism.” At its core, Populism was an economic movement. It was pro-tax (graduated income tax, with higher brackets for higher-paid earners), it was pro-regulation (don’t let Wall Street get away with murder), and it was anti-monopoly. Today’s Tea Partiers would have been horrified by the true Populists, to put it another way. The true Populists probably would have considered President Obama’s “Buffett Rule” pretty weak beer, since it only evens the tax rate out between millionaires and average American workers, but they also would have seen it as a big step in the right direction.
Whether Obama’s populist campaign works or not, maybe it’ll at least stop the media from continuing their lazy habit of calling the Tea Partiers “populist” (which is, historically, quite laughable). That, too, would be a step in the right direction, in my opinion.
Chris Weigant blogs at:
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant
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