This fall, liberals from the president on down have begun to grasp the scope of the political and intellectual disaster that the past three years have been for the Left. Their various responses to the calamity have tended to have one thing in common: immense frustration. But the different expressions of that frustration have been deeply revealing. They should help Americans better understand this complicated moment in our politics, and, in particular, help conservatives frame their responses.
Liberal frustration has fallen into two general categories that seem at first to flatly contradict each other: denunciations of democracy and appeals to populism. In September, Peter Orszag, President Obama’s former budget director, wrote an essay in The New Republic arguing that “we need less democracy.” To address our country’s daunting problems, Orszag suggested, we need to take some power away from Congress and give it to “automatic policies and depoliticized commissions” that will be shielded from public pressure. “Radical as it sounds, we need to counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic.” Two weeks later, North Carolina’s Democratic governor, Beverly Perdue, made a less sophisticated stab at the same general point, proposing to suspend congressional elections for a few years so members of Congress could make the difficult decisions necessary to get our country out of its deep problems.
Orszag and Perdue both seemed to channel a long and deeply held view of the Left — that the complexity of modern life and the intensity of modern politics should lead us to put more power in the hands of technical experts who have the knowledge to make objective, rational choices on our behalf. Leaving things to the political process will result only in delay and disorder. President Obama has frequently expressed this view himself — wistfully complaining to his aides earlier this year, for instance, that things would sure be easier if he were president of China.
At the same time, the Left has been rediscovering the joys of populism. Populism can mean many things, of course, but in America it has often meant not only a faith in the wisdom of the masses but also a channeling of resentments into a case that the majority is being oppressed by an elite few. And that is just what the president has sought this fall. On the stump, he has been railing against wealthy corporate-jet owners and their Republican henchmen, who care not for the struggling working man and want only “dirtier air, dirtier water, fewer people on health care, [and] less accountability on Wall Street.” Meanwhile, a small but opulently publicized populist protest movement has arisen to “occupy” parts of New York’s financial district as well as parks and public spaces elsewhere around the country. Although it seems at times to be all fringe and no center, the movement does appear to be held together by resentment against corporate greed and crony capitalism, and a sense that the large mass of the public shares that resentment.
So should we be guided by expert commissions or a popular movement? Does the public have too much of a voice in our politics or not enough of one? It is tempting to see the Left’s simultaneous calls for populism and technocracy as a profound incoherence, because we are inclined to see the two as opposite ends of an argument about who should govern.
For that reason, too, it has been tempting to respond with populist outrage to the stunning administrative overreach of Washington liberals in recent years — from banning Edison’s light bulb to giving 15 experts the authority to set health-care prices to expanding the scope of regulatory discretion seemingly without limits. For all its populist rhetoric of late, the Left has leaned far more heavily toward government by experts. And on its face, populist outrage does appear to be the character of the conservative response to the Obama years. It has been embodied above all in an extraordinary populist movement — the Tea Party, which has tried to fight back against the incursions of technocracy.