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April 29, 2007

Liberalism Versus Populism

In today’s New York Times, Michael Lind has a generous and thoughtful review of Freedom’s Power. He takes me to task, however, on one issue in particular: my treatment of the Populist movement of the late nineteenth century. He is entirely right that in discussing the formative influences on modern liberalism, I give the Populists little attention and regard the Progressives of the early twentieth century as more crucial.

Here is what I just wrote in an email in response to a reader who agrees with Lind’s review and thinks I should be more sympathetic to populism:

Many people use the term “populist” these days as a synonym for popular, egalitarian, and democratic. The liberalism I favor is all of those things. But as a distinctive movement in the U.S. and elsewhere, populism has other characteristics that are not so attractive—a penchant for ill-will toward minorities and immigrants and a suspicious, resentful, and sometimes downright paranoid view of education, culture, and finance. It is entirely possible, for example, to favor progressive taxation and oppose special privileges for corporations without adopting a populist worldview. That is why, in my mind, populism is not part of the history of liberalism. It was one of the alternatives liberalism had to overcome. And in much of the world, it still is. You can see this especially clearly in Latin America and other developing regions where populist leaders throw red meat to the crowds and do very little to advance long-term economic growth and social improvement.
My distaste for populism has been a long-running point of disagreement that I have had with many other liberals, including some of my fellow editors at The American Prospect. Here are some excerpts from “Why I’m Not a Populist,” an article I wrote seven years ago in the Prospect to explain my position:

It was just about 100 years ago, after the defeat of William Jennings Bryan in 1896, that the original, agrarian Populist movement collapsed and gave way to the more broadly based Progressivism of the early 1900s that permanently altered American government and society. But Populism, despite its short and checkered history, survives in our political vocabulary, and there are a fair number of people who brighten up at the thought of a populist revival. I am, however, not among them.

From the outset, the populist impulse has been to play upon one public emotion above all: anger. That anger has typically been directed at a diffuse enemy at the top—the monopolies, the interests, or elites of various kinds. The populist mind suspects conspiracies in high places, often in league with foreign influences, and appeals to a kind of insular Americanism that is suspicious of both immigrants and other countries. The grievances that populism taps are no doubt genuine. Its rhetoric and remedies are oversimplified and dangerous.
In the article, I went on to discuss three candidates for president in 2000 who at the time were being described as “populist”: Patrick Buchanan, Ralph Nader, and Al Gore. After noting that Buchanan had become an “asterisk” in public-opinion surveys (albeit a “major-league asterisk”), I had the following to say about Nader and Gore:

As of early September, Ralph Nader was doing better, pulling as much as 4 to 5 percent in the polls, which could be enough to tip the election. Nader's populism is the left-wing variety directed at corporate elites; it starts with legitimate criticism of corporate abuses but fails to provide a persuasive understanding of the economy as a whole. Nearly 30 years ago, as one of "Nader's raiders," I worked for Ralph on a study of Vietnam veterans and the Veterans Administration. Those were the days when Nader was a “consumer advocate” and swore that he had no ambitions for elected office, which was a good idea since he certainly didn't have the temper for it. The irony of Nader's presidential campaign is that if it succeeds, it may enable Bush (and his likely nominees to the Supreme Court) to dismantle the very agencies and policies that Nader himself helped to create in the early years of his public career. This would be success only if you count self-cancellation as an achievement.

The third candidate the media have dubbed "populist" is the surprise of the campaign: Al Gore. Gore earned the label by claiming at the Democratic convention to stand for "the people, not the powerful," and criticizing "big tobacco, big oil, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies, the HMOs." It was a critical turn for Gore, helping to reassure the base of the party about his Democratic bona fides. Nader reacted indignantly that Gore wasn't really a populist, and of course Gore isn't. He has no general antipathy to business, much less to the establishment.

So was his appeal at the Democratic convention fraudulent? Not at all. On a variety of issues, such as prescription drug benefits for the elderly, a patients' bill of rights,
environmental protection, and the regulation of tobacco, Democrats face fierce, heavily financed opposition from business interests. Setting aside "big oil" (obviously singled out because of the makeup of the Republican ticket), Gore's list underlined a determination to prevail over business opposition on issues that are central to the campaign. In a survey question that quoted Gore's list of specific industries, a Business Week/Harris poll in late August found that Americans agree with the vice president by a margin of 74 percent to 22 percent, but they don't necessarily harbor any deep anger against corporations: 68 percent also agree that American business should be given "most of the credit" for the current prosperity.

The Democrats are not an anticorporate party, but they are more willing than the Republicans to take on business interests to pursue goals that have broad public support. It was important for Gore to make clear that he would do that, not only to consolidate support for November, but also to establish a basis for a mandate afterward if he wins.

As a general approach to politics, populism long ago fizzled. Prosperity today makes an appeal to public anger and suspicion particularly implausible as a winning strategy. But there is still room for a politics that pushes back against corporate influence and seeks to assert the primacy of a public interest. The recent scandal involving Firestone tires is a reminder of the kind of corporate malfeasance that genuinely arouses public support for strong regulation of business. You don't have to be a populist to want political leaders who know when to put business in its place.

Notwithstanding Gore’s efforts to make clear that he would be an effective advocate of popular interests, Nader did tip the election, as I feared. We all know what happened as a result. Liberals ought to be clear: an egalitarian politics, certainly. But populism, no.

Paul Starr

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April 23, 2007

The idea of a Young America program

A new column of mine proposing a Young America program appears today in Campus Progress, the online student magazine of the Center for American Progress. The column draws on material from the last chapter of Freedom’s Power and argues that social policy ought to focus resources on the young. As the GI bill provided a tremendous boost to American society after World War II by enabling young veterans and their families to obtain higher education, job training, health care, and mortgages, so we ought today to help the young invest in their own—and thereby the nation’s—future.

The proposal for a Young America program builds on ideas that have been circulating for a while calling for new policies benefiting children. The difference here is more of an emphasis on young adults.

Fifteen years ago, in January 1992, I gave a speech to the National Academy of Social Insurance called “A New Deal for the Young” (a phrase I’ve continued to use). The speech was buried in the academy’s annual conference proceedings, and I didn’t do anything further with it because I was soon preoccupied with health policy in the Clinton administration.

But I’ve now posted “A New Deal for the Young” on my Princeton web site because nearly all of it continues to be relevant.

The key historical point is that the original New Deal and other programs of that era assumed that the traditional family would continue to be the predominant form and did not anticipate the radically different social world we inhabit today. Moreover, the primary legacy of the New Deal, particularly in a fiscal sense, has been the old-age pension system of Social Security as well as the Medicare program added to it in 1965.

After the mid-1960s, federal social spending shifted markedly toward the aged. Children and young adults have been relatively ill-served. As I point out in the column:

A variety of social indicators show the results. Just this past month, UNICEF brought together data on poverty rates, health, social behavior, families, and peer relationships in a study of the well-being of children and adolescents in 21 rich countries. In the overall ranking, the United States came in next to last.

To remedy these failings, we should be doing more to improve early childhood education and other policies affecting young children. But we should also be thinking about their parents—and the young people who will be parents not long from now.

As I did 15 years ago, I continue to argue for basing at least some elements of such a policy in a “norm of reciprocity.” Rather than simply hand out benefits, we ought to make them contingent on one or another form of national service. Where benefits are earned, they have far more chance of being thought legitimate.

This analysis ties in with the general ideas of Freedom’s Power:

The premise of a Young America program would be the inclusive conception of freedom and power that are at the core of modern liberalism. An increasingly unequal America that exposes so many of its young to poverty and insecurity cannot be the strong and prosperous nation all Americans want it to be. Government can be the means for expanding the horizon of freedom, creating opportunity, and making a society both more powerful and more just. The world used to think of America as a country where the young had possibilities unmatched anywhere else. The United States could be that country again.

P.S. For reaction to the proposal, check out what Ganesh Sitaraman has to say at TPM Cafe: "This is a bold idea – and one that could do a lot for the next generation of Americans." There are also more comments there, pro and con.

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April 15, 2007

Why Liberalism Works

The April issue of The American Prospect carries a condensed version of some of the key arguments in Freedom’s Power. Triumphal conservatism had its moment. But, as I write in the piece,

No one, not even conservatives, doubts that conservatism is now in deep trouble:
divided, uncertain of itself, and with a lot of explaining to do for the fiasco
in Iraq. Yet the exhaustion of conservatism is not tantamount to a liberal
revival. The Bush administration's manifest failures and the Democrats' triumph
in the 2006 elections have created a new opening for liberal argument. The
question is now whether liberals can make their case not just for specific
policies and candidates but for an alternative public philosophy.
My article, “Why Liberalism Works,” attempts to outline that philosophy and relate to the challenges we face today. The full version of that argument is laid out in the book, Freedom’s Power.

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