“Your life stinks, there’s nothing you can do about it, and the only way things will get better is if you elect me president.”
That’s the message of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry this year, in a nutshell.
In fact, that’s been the unspoken subtext of most of the leading Democrats during this primary. Sen. John Edwards may have named his political action committee “New American Optimists,” but he paints a dire picture of the world: “Working people have been shut out by this president because he values only one thing: wealth. He wants to make sure that those who have it–keep it. That they belong to an exclusive club–that the barriers are up, the doors closed and no one else ever gets in.”
Howard Dean’s slogan–besides “YEARRRRRRRGH!”–was, “You have the power to take our country back.” In one sense, it’s empowering, but inherent in the statement is the supposition that the country–not just the presidency, but the country itself–has been taken away, as if conquered by an invading army. And, of course, the people couldn’t “take back America” by themselves–they needed Dean to lead them.
But for raw, us-vs.-them populism with a dark, almost dystopian view of the world, look to the frontrunner. Kerry’s top media strategist is Bob Shrum, the political consultant most associated with confrontational, grim populism. Every Kerry speech features an extended travelogue through a hellish landscape:
From Wisconsin to Missouri to Ohio, this administration has ripped the heart out of the heartland… Jobs on the run. Wages and salaries dead in the water. Health care unavailable and unaffordable. A sense of powerlessness–people waking up everyday worried that their job is about to disappear and a lifetime of dreams will be destroyed… George Bush has put pollution ahead of preservation, campaign contributions ahead of conservation, special interests ahead of America’s special places, Exxon ahead of the environment, parking lots ahead of parks… Cuts in police and crime on the rise. The biggest surpluses in history turned into the biggest deficits.
In Shrum’s America, the people and the powerful are locked in a grim, zero-sum death struggle. The rich, resembling a Thomas Nast cartoon or Monopoly’s Mr. Moneybags, always win, cackling as they squeeze more profits out of the endless masses of the unwashed middle class and poor, who resemble the cast of The Grapes of Wrath. The candidates from the Shrum-populism wing of the Democratic party this year aren’t just running to be your president, they’re running to be your savior.
The overriding message to voters during this primary is that their lives are miserable, that they always will be miserable unless the right man is elected to office, and that self-help is a myth. Class mobility, the self-made man, and the classic American success stories are either long-departed legends or false propaganda of the elite. Messages of optimism, opportunity, and don’t-fence-me-in freedom are lies for the naïve.
Paul Krugman literally proclaimed “The Death of Horatio Alger” in The Nation a few months ago.
“Over the past generation upward mobility has fallen drastically,” Krugman wrote. “Very few children of the lower class are making their way to even moderate affluence. This goes along with other studies indicating that rags-to-riches stories have become vanishingly rare, and that the correlation between fathers’ and sons’ incomes has risen in recent decades. In modern America, it seems, you’re quite likely to stay in the social and economic class into which you were born.”
Thus, in Bush’s America, if your father was a Princeton University economics professor/New York Times columnist/author, you can aspire no higher than to those meager dreams.
But is this accurate? Does a combination of outsourcing, or free trade, or high deficits, or some combination of presidential decisions mean that the American dream is dead?
Look at the lives of average Americans–or to use Edwards’s preferred gastro-intestinal term, “regular people.” Has a decision by a president or Congress meant the difference between misery and the good life? In some cases, the answer is certainly “yes,” such as various scholarship programs and the G.I. bill. Perhaps some job training program opened a door to a new career. Maybe a government contract helped take a small business to the big time. (Oh yes–perhaps a government decision to treat terrorism as a law enforcement issue throughout the 1990s caused immense misery for thousands of American families two and half years back.)
But by and large, isn’t an individual’s success in life dependent on more than a government program? Don’t hard work, ambition, drive, determination, and persistence have any part in this?
Perhaps some politicians’ belief that their votes and vetoes mean the difference between success and failure for the vast majority of Americans stems from ego. Elected officials often confuse their legislation and votes–words on paper that mostly allocate federal funds–with creation, construction, and action, sometimes on life-and-death matters. No better example of this can be found than Sen. Bob Torricelli’s speech announcing he would not run for a second term in the Senate:
Some woman’s life is going to be changed because of the mammography centers that I created for thousands of women. Somewhere tonight in Bergen County, if a women is beaten, if she fears for her child, she’ll spend the night in a center that I created for abused children so they can be safe… Somewhere all over New Jersey, some senior citizen who doesn’t even know my name and nothing about what we’re going today will live in a senior center that I helped to build.
No, you didn’t, senator. Architects “created” them. Construction workers built them. Doctors, workers, and volunteers staffed those centers and made them actually function and accomplish the goal they were built for. You made sure that a certain amount of the money taken from taxpayers nationwide went to pay for all that.
Some voices on the left have pointed out the flaws in the “vote-for-me-or-your-misery-continues” argument. Joe Klein observed in 2002 that,
Populism is one of the more romantic and less admirable American political traditions…. It purports to represent the interests of the little guy–the people, not the powerful, to use the Shrum-Gore bumper sticker–but more often than not it has manifested itself as a witlessly reactionary bundle of prejudices: nativist, protectionist, isolationist, and paranoid. The central assumption is that the little guy is so aggrieved that he can only be roused to citizenship by an appeal to his basest suspicions. Exploitation and venality are posited as the central fact of American life: The country is being taken to the cleaners by wicked plutocrats.
Klein contends the victorious Democratic model requires politicians to “combines patriotic optimism with the promise to support individual initiative and demand corporate responsibility, as Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton did. Formulations that use the word “against,” as in “the people against the powerful,” just aren’t very successful in America.”
Shrum’s most persistent critic is Slate columnist Mickey Kaus, who has pointed out that “the problem in the lives of most individual Americans today isn’t that ‘big guys’ are standing in their way–and populism’s comforting scapegoating in this regard is one of its most unattractive features.”
Kaus has also cited historian Sean Wilentz’s dismissal of “shmiberalism,” which is described as an ideology whose adherents “assume that the poor and powerless are the abject, pitiable victims of other people . . .[S]hmiberalism appeals to people’s compassion rather than to their interests.”
In fact, when talking about the American workers, trade, and economics, Kerry’s rhetoric is indistinguishable from the most prominent proponent of confrontational populism, Pat Buchanan. (See here.)
In fact, with the two Irishmen (whoops, forgot Kerry’s grandparents were Jewish Czech immigrants)…with the two populists in agreement about the dire state of U.S. workers, the menace of free trade, the villainy of corporate America, and the foolishness of war in Iraq, one wonders why we haven’t heard any speculation so far about a Kerry-Buchanan ticket.
–Jim Geraghty, a reporter with States News Service in Washington, is a frequent contributor to NRO and a commentator on London’s ITN News.