The Misguided Silliness of "Libertarian Populism"

In case you missed it, the new Republican watchword is "Libertarian populism," which is quickly being embraced by people who are neither libertarians nor populists. But it's a shorthand for an impossibly inane attack that Republicans are trying out, seeing if they can make any hay by charging that President Obama is only interested in helping rich people at the expense the rest of us. Okay, the rest of you, I guess, because these are Republicans we're talking about, and they're not part of that "us," but you get the idea. All of sudden, people like Paul Ryan are out there saying, "The president claims his economic agenda is for the middle class. But it's actually for the well-connected. There's no doubt that it works well for them. But for the rest of us, it's not working at all."

You can make an argument that Obama hasn't done enough to reverse growing inequality in this country, but it's a little hard to make that argument and then claim the answer is to cut food stamps, prevent more people from getting Medicaid, and give tax cuts to the wealthy. You see, consistency in and of itself isn't the real problem here. The problem is that economic populism requires you to talk about policies and how they affect people at different levels of income, which is about the last thing Republicans ever want to do.

It isn't as though they haven't tried to be populists before, but in previous incarnations, it was almost always a cultural populism, not an economic one. Remember George H.W. Bush saying Michael Dukakis' ideas were born in "the Harvard boutique," or his son attacking John Kerry for windsurfing and speaking French? The point was never that Democrats would pursue policies that helped the upper classes, it was that Democrats were, deep in their very cores, not like you. They went to high-falutin' Ivy League schools, they sipped Chardonnay and ate arugula, they didn't believe in God, they spent insufficient amounts of time hunting, and so on. The attack may have reached its glorious apogee with this Club For Growth ad against Howard Dean during the 2004 presidential campaign:

The nice thing about the cultural populist attack is that you can make it no matter what policies you're advocating. It's not a problem to say, "My opponent is an elitist" even if you're the one fighting against an increase in the minimum wage, so long as you define elitism by the fact that he has a passport and you don't.

Libertarian populism isn't doomed just because it's silly, but because it's fighting against so much history. The GOP's image as the party of the wealthy wasn't created in a week or a month or a year, it was built up over decades. Decades of advocating for tax cuts for the wealthy, decades of attacks on welfare moochers, decades of opposing any labor protections, decades of advocacy for freeing corporations from the burden of regulation. If there's anything even the least attentive voter knows about the Republican party, it's that that's where the rich folk are. Changing that is an almost impossible task, particularly if that's where the rich folk are staying.

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