Why Democrats Must Be Populists

The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) can take credit for many of the Democratic Party's successes in the 1990s. It was instrumental in deflecting Republican charges that Democrats condoned crime, favored welfare over work, and backed higher deficits and taxes. But since the November 2000 election, the DLC and its leaders in Congress have waged a scorched-earth campaign against "populism" in the Democratic Party. This campaign, if successful, would deprive Democrats of what historically has been one of their most important ideological assets, and make it more difficult for the party to win back the majority that it lost to conservative Republicans in 1980.

The DLC's campaign against populism was front and center at its convention last month in New York. DLC Chairman Al From warned that Democrats should not use the spate of recent corporate scandals to justify populist attacks against Republicans. "There's a difference between being cropped in the progressive tradition of American politics," said From, "[and] either being a corporatist, the defender of bad behavior [who is] too close to special interests, or being a populist that wants to destroy the capitalist system." Former Clinton administration Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater seconded From. "The point of this meeting," he explained, is "to get past the populism question." He warned that Democrats are "in danger of slipping back to pre-1992, and that has to be checked."

DLC politicos, as well as DLC pollster Mark Penn, blamed former Vice President Al Gore's defeat in 2000 on his use of the populist theme of the "people versus the powerful." Gore's vice presidential candidate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), said that Gore's "economic populism stuff 'was not the New Democrat approach. It was not the pro-growth approach. It made it more difficult for us to gain the support of middle-class, independent voters who don't see America as...us versus them.'" Echoed Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), "I think the strategy was wrong, and it was not likely to be successful."

What's really wrong, though, are these indictments of populism. The DLCers have got political history backward. The original populists were not out to destroy capitalism but to preserve it. And Democratic populism didn't suddenly disappear in 1992; it was integral to Bill Clinton's successful campaign that year. The DLCers are also wrong about 2000. In that election, Gore's campaign on behalf of the "people versus the powerful" almost lifted him to victory rather than plunging him to defeat. And if the Democrats were to abandon populist appeals this year, in the face of corporate scandals and an economic slowdown, they would forfeit an excellent chance to keep the Senate in Democratic hands and win back the House of Representatives.

There are pundits and ad execs who use the term "populist" to refer to any utterance that curries public favor, but as Michael Kazin argues in The Populist Persuasion, today's populism is rooted in the assumptions of 19th-century American politics. It dates from the Jacksonian period of the 1830s and Andrew Jackson's war against the Second Bank of the United States, and from the last two decades of the 19th century, when a populist movement (and later a party) formed in the South and the West. The party and the movement perished after the defeat of populism's foremost standard-bearer, Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, in 1896. But many of populism's political demands, such as those for a graduated income tax and the direct election of senators, were adopted by progressive Republicans and liberal Democrats, and its key themes were embraced by the major parties and by insurgent movements.

Like any large movement, the late 19th-century populists were an amalgam of themes and ideas. There was a strong nativist current within the populists; there was also considerable support for oddball financial schemes. Right-wing demagogues later claimed to be wearing the populist mantle in their attacks on foreigners or minorities. But there was a defining populist worldview that has influenced Democrats from Bryan in 1896 to Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 to Clinton and Gore in 1992. At the heart of this worldview was what the populists called "producerism." The Jacksonians, and later the populists, distinguished those who actually produced wealth from those who lived off of it -- "the idle holders of idle capital," as Bryan referred to them in his "Cross of Gold" speech. Populists believed that wealth and power should accrue to those who produced it -- "the people," properly so-called -- and not to those who lived off the people's labor.

Such a distinction may sound Marxist, but the populists were neither Marxists nor socialists. They counted the craftsman and the businessman as members of the producing classes, but not the speculator or the absentee landlord. Many populists owned their own farms, and they saw an alliance with labor as an alliance between "capital and labor." "Capital and labor should be allies and not enemies," the Farmers Alliance, the founding populist organization, declared in 1885. The populists believed that unearned wealth should be taxed and that corporations should not be subsidized by government, but they were not levelers. They were much closer in their outlook to Jefferson and Jackson than they were to Marx. They extolled the Jacksonian slogan, "Equal rights for all, special privileges for none." Indeed, they had no interest in destroying capitalism. They wanted to protect the market against Wall Street and against the railroads. They saw nationalizing the railroad oligopoly as a way to save capitalism, not as a first step toward destroying it. They wanted to take land away from absentee railroad owners and return it to private ownership by working farmers.

The principal difference between the late 19th-century populists and their Jacksonian forbears lay in their views of the federal government. The Jacksonians saw the federal government as an instrument of private, economic monopoly. The government funded the Bank of the United States, which East Coast bankers controlled and used to subsidize their pet projects. The populists saw government as an instrument of popular power to be wielded against economic monopolies and the idle rich. "We believe that the power of government -- in other words, of the people -- should be expanded...to the end that oppression, injustice and poverty shall eventually cease in the land," the Populist Party platform of 1892 declared.

This conception of democracy was championed by Bryan during his presidential campaigns. During the 1920s, more conservative Democrats, such as John W. Davis, the party's 1924 presidential nominee, abandoned it, but it was revived by Roosevelt in the 1930s and carried forward by many of his Democratic successors. Roosevelt defended the "average man" and the "common man" against the "princes of property" and the "economic royalists." From's characterization of Democratic populists as out to "destroy capitalism" sounds much like the charges hurled at Roosevelt by his Republican opponents, but Roosevelt never intended to stigmatize business itself, only those financiers and industrialists -- the Ken Lays of his day -- who had gamed the system to their advantage and robbed customers, workers and small-time stockholders. Like the populists, Roosevelt proposed to use the power of government to police these princes of property. "Against economic tyranny," Roosevelt thundered in 1936, "the American citizen could only appeal to the organized power of government."

Roosevelt's populism certainly didn't hurt the Democratic cause. By portraying the Republicans as the party of the idle rich, Roosevelt condemned them to minority status for the next four decades. Roosevelt's Democrats thus did better among the lower and middle classes, Republicans among the upper classes. But because the former far outnumbered the latter, Democratic candidates usually won. Roosevelt's successors voiced these same populist themes. In 1948, for instance, Harry Truman asked voters to elect a Congress "that will work in the interests of the common people and not in the interests of the men who have all the money."

Democrats began to lose their majority in 1968, when segregationist George Wallace, campaigning for president as an independent, was able to take the votes of southern whites and some northern ethnics away from the Democrats. Wallace and his successors -- New Right Republicans such as Jesse Helms -- appropriated populist themes to attract these white voters, claiming that Democratic "limousine liberals" and "pointy headed bureaucrats" had abandoned the white working class in favor of "welfare queens." Some left-leaning Democrats, such as Jesse Jackson, wittingly or unwittingly reinforced this impression during the 1980s. But the DLC's approach to welfare and crime, along with the recession of the early 1990s, defused Republican wedge politics without compromising the Democrats' commitment to civil rights. As the DLC's William Galston and Elaine Kamarck predicted in an in?uential 1989 pamphlet, "credibility" on values would "get Democratic candidates in the door to make their affirmative economic case." But in helping the Democrats get in the door, the DLC paved the way for a revival of the Democratic populism that it now condemns.

Populism was central to Clinton's appeal in 1992, as well as to the success of third-party candidate Ross Perot. Clinton's platform was called "Putting People First." And his nomination acceptance speech in July of that year evoked the heart of the populist vision. Said Clinton, "I was raised to believe that the American dream was built on rewarding hard work. But we have seen the folks in Washington turn the American ethic on its head. For too long, those who play by the rules and keep the faith have gotten the shaft. And those who cut corners and cut deals have been rewarded." That's as clear statement as you'll find of what Kazin calls the "populist persuasion."

Gore resurrected his floundering campaign in August 2000 by invoking the populist theme of the "people versus the powerful" during his convention address. In the tradition of Bryan, Roosevelt and Clinton, Gore's populism had no trace of anticapitalism. He attacked "big tobacco, big oil, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies, the hmos" for blocking consumer, environmental and health-care legislation. He was not attacking the system of profits and markets. And the results were electric. According to the Newsweek poll, Gore was down 48 percent to 38 percent just before the convention. At the end of August, he was ahead by 49 percent to 38 percent, a 21-point turnaround, the poll showed. Commented Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, "There can be no disputing the polls that showed that Gore's quasi-populist message at the 2000 Democratic convention helped send his numbers soaring past George Bush."

This november, the democrats would seem to have a golden opportunity. The issues this year resemble those of 1932 and 1992, when Republicans were also burdened by business scandals and by an economic downturn, and when Democrats used populist appeals to post large gains. Democrats probably won't do quite as well this year because of Bush's post-September 11 popularity, but they still stand a very good chance of riding a populist wave to victory in both houses of Congress. Yet the DLC doggedly insists that populist themes will hurt rather than help this autumn.

It is tempting to ascribe the DLC's dislike of populism to the preferences of its fat-cat funders and to the defensiveness of politicians such as Lieberman and Bayh, who have opposed needed reforms on behalf of business lobbies. (Bayh, a favorite of the credit-card companies, even fought against a Democratic bill that would have required minors to obtain parental consent for spending more than $2,500 on credit-card bills.)

From and Penn, however, appear to have more genuine grounds for opposing populism. They believe that while populist appeals help with the Democratic base, they hurt Democratic chances among upscale voters -- whom From calls "new-economy swing voters" and whom Penn has labeled "wired workers." They blame Gore's loss in key border states such as Missouri on the defection of these voters, and warn that if Democrats persist in pressing populist themes in November 2002, they will lose those states again.

But this argument doesn't stand up. If you look at Gore's poll ratings before and after his speech at the Democratic convention, his support shoots up among the very voters whom the DLCers believed were cool to such populist appeals. According to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Gore's support increased 12 percent among voters who make between $50,000 and $75,000 per year (and by 19 percent among independents, according to the Gallup poll). If you look at the final results, Gore did relatively well among upscale voters, particularly those with high levels of education. Where he slipped precipitously from Clinton's margins in 1996 was among white working-class voters.

Take From and Penn's example of Missouri. In downscale north and southeast Missouri, where the term "wired workers" would provoke quizzical glances, Clinton had won white working-class voters by 50 percent to 38 percent in 1996, but Gore lost them by 60 percent to 38 percent, a huge 34-point swing. By contrast, Gore won upscale new-economy St. Louis County -- the high-tech suburban area to the west of St. Louis -- by 51 percent to 46 percent. Gore lost Missouri in the working class north and southeast, not in the affluent St. Louis or Kansas City suburbs.

Gore lost these working-class voters primarily because his populist appeal and his defense of Social Security could not overcome the Republican wedge issues of 2000: Democratic support for gun control and the shadow cast by the Clinton scandals over Gore's character. In an extensive post-election poll conducted by Gore's pollster Stanley Greenberg, white, non-college-educated male voters, who swung sharply from Clinton in 1996 to Bush in 2000, cited Gore's "exaggerations and untruthfulness," his "anti-gun positions" and his "being too close to Clinton" as the prime reasons for voting against him. College-educated white male voters who opposed Gore, meanwhile, overwhelmingly cited Gore's untruthfulness.

From's and penn's fears that populism will drive away upscale voters stem in part from their misunderstanding of populism. They are fond of saying that other Democrats are living in the past, but this is a case where the DLCers are. Their model of populist advocacy is the 1930s, when populism did appeal primarily to a working-class electorate. They can't conceive of well-to-do, college-educated populists. But populism's leaders have historically been drawn from the well-to-do and the college-trained. During the early 20th century and again today, populist themes have resonated among upscale as well as downscale voters.

Andrew Jackson was a lawyer and a wealthy plantation owner. Farmer Alliance founder Charles W. Macune was trained as a doctor and lawyer. Ralph Nader was a Harvard Law School graduate. And Ross Perot was one of the wealthiest people in America. Populism's producer ethic fits the "high-achieving rich" better than the "shiftless poor." It appeals to people such as Perot, who are proud of their own accomplishments and who believe that the country is being threatened by incompetents and cheats in high places.

Among today's voters, you'll find strong support for populism among some of the upscale and college-educated voters, but only if you look behind vague appellations such as "wired workers" and "new-economy voters." There are two large groups of upscale voters: managers and professionals. Managers tend to be Republicans and to resist populist appeals. Professionals have become increasingly Democratic and have become receptive to populist appeals. So probably have less-credentialed technicians, but they are too small a group to pick up in political surveys.

Professionals include architects, engineers, doctors and nurses, teachers and professors, fashion designers, television producers and writers, and computer programmers. In the 1950s, they made up about 7 percent of the workforce. Now they constitute more than 15 percent of the workforce and about 21 percent of the electorate. Professionals used to be the single most dependable Republican group. In the 1960 election, they backed Richard Nixon over John Kennedy by 61 percent to 38 percent -- well above Nixon's 52 percent to 48 percent margin among managers. In the last four presidential elections, however, professionals have backed Democrats by an average of 52 percent to 40 percent. Professionals also used to be the group most committed to a laissez-faire model of the economy, epitomized by the American Medical Association's decades-long crusade against "socialized medicine." Now the AMA wants a tough patients' bill of rights, and professionals as a group are among the most committed to regulatory capitalism.

Unlike managers, who have remained predominately Republican, professionals have never had a simple bottom-line mentality. They gauge their success by the excellence of their product. Software programmers worry about writing "cool" code, teachers about educating their pupils, doctors and nurses about curing their patients. In the 1950s, independent professionals saw themselves as proof that unfettered capitalism could work. But in the last four decades, the independent professional has disappeared. Instead, professionals have increasingly found their work subject to the dictates of insurance companies, entertainment conglomerates and other large institutions that have imposed a bottom-line mentality. As a result, professionals have become increasingly inclined to distinguish their priorities from those of the market and of large corporate interests. They have not become anticapitalist, but they want government to regulate the market to ensure that it serves the public interest.

Professionals were also the group most affected by the social, environmental and consumer movements that emerged on the campuses in the 1960s; they made up the Nader generation. And of all the occupational groups, professionals remain the biggest supporters of environmental and consumer protection, and of campaign-finance reform. In the 2000 election, the National Election Study found that 73.9 percent of professionals favored stronger environmental regulation. They were receptive to Gore's charges that the "big polluters" were blocking environmental legislation, and that Washington lobbies had killed campaign-finance reform. They understood, even if From didn't, that Gore didn't want to shut down Monsanto or nationalize the oil industry.

The DLC clearly needs to rethink its rejection of populism and to define more carefully the upscale constituencies that it believes Democrats need to attract. Party coalitions are always composed of fractious parts, but they are usually united by themes that differentiate them from the opposition. Populist themes have longed played that role within the Democratic Party. In the 1930s, they drew together northern blacks and southern whites. In the last decade, they have united professionals with working-class and many minority voters, while continuing to stigmatize Republicans as the party of the irresponsible rich. True, populist appeals often offend those corporate ceos or investment bankers who are opposed to regulatory capitalism, but such voters are unlikely to support Democrats in any case.

This defense of populism should not be construed as a defense of every program that has been justified in populist terms. Populism is a worldview and not a specific program or set of policies, and its applications change as the society and economy does. Today's populism is not necessarily the same as that of the New Deal or the Great Society. As the DLC has argued, voters today want change, but in stages rather than all at once. Many of them, and particularly the professionals that have begun voting Democratic, remain skeptical of "big government" solutions. They want to regulate the health-care industry, but they don't want to replace it with a government-run system. They don't want tax programs that favor the rich, but they are still queasy about tax increases, even when directed primarily at unearned wealth.

In the debate that has already begun between the DLC and the proponents of Democratic populism, both sides need to understand what the other can contribute to Democrats' success. Without the DLC's reorientation of Democratic attitudes toward crime, welfare and big government, Democrats today would not be within reach of a national majority. Yet without a commitment to populism's enduring worldview, Democrats will not be able to grasp this majority.

You may also like