There is this to be said for populist oratory: it is generally directed against the big fella, and that is attractive to the American who lives in a world in which collectivity threatens all. The traditional threat of the collectivist dragon was as easy to understand, and as easy to loathe, as the porcine British king who kept on finding burdens for his colonial Americans to shoulder, and contributed especially to the resentment of his subjects by denying them any influence on the Parliament that supported him.
In more recent times, there has usually been a presidential candidate out there who took the populist line, endeavoring to distinguish himself from the establishment, and inviting followers to join him in heterodoxy. He draws attention to the special fragrance that rises from the fetid pools of power — big business, big unions. However, his remedies usually rely on another of those pools: big government.
So this time it is John Edwards. It is perfectly fair to probe the populist’s background in judging his standing to speak. John Edwards devotes much time to his familiarity with the life of the American working man, though not quite as convincingly as, say, Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath. And whatever historians end up classifying the young Edwards as having been, they will come upon hard facts that fix him financially at this historical point. This populist candidate lives in a 28,000-square-foot house, and he has paid $400 for a haircut. Before he entered politics, he was a trial lawyer — an extremely successful trial lawyer, in the practice of which profession he taught himself those endearing skills which he now employs in seeking the whole nation as his client.
Consider health care, with which Mr. Edwards is so clearly identified. He deplores the fact that so many lower-income citizens are not insured. But he has a simple remedy: decree universal health insurance. But who will pay for universal health insurance? Well…the big insurance companies can bear some of the burden. And for the rest? Why, let the government pay for it!
Lower-income citizens are victimized by predatory lenders. So, cap interest rates on credit cards and unsecured loans. Prohibit abuses in the mortgage market, including prepayment penalties, mandatory arbitration, balloon mortgages, and excessive fees. Encourage states to make low- or no-interest emergency loans to low-income families. Well, why not?
Energy and the environment? No liquid-coal experiments. Require oil companies to install biofuel pumps at 25-percent of their gas stations. Cap utilities’ profits on sales of electricity.
And so it goes, the whole latticework of a free economy brought under the control of the federal government.
Mr. Edwards is already declining in the polls. That is one up for the sophistication of the American voter. Indeed, throughout the twentieth century we rejected populist assaults on reality. The most popular expression of populist thought was, of course, socialism. The idea immediately grabs you: Let the wise men judge what are the most rational and beneficial distributions of goods and services. This way, you do not run the risk of leaving anybody out.
A less draconian way of managing the redistribution of resources is through manipulations of the tax code. Increase tax rates, throw out deductions, repeal the tax reforms of the past few years.
The mind reels.
There are those who, while admitting that the populist approach does not work, nevertheless welcome its occasional appearances on the scene. Because, they will tell you, populism draws attention in a theatrical way to what the free market can ignore — to dissatisfactions that legitimately attract the reformer. Norman Thomas, who ran six times for president on the Socialist ticket, liked to remind his audiences that he had advocated Social Security the first time he ran, seven years before the New Deal discovered it.
Sometimes it works that way. A populist epiphany, followed at some remove by a milder version of it, which could still reduce the size of Mr. Edwards’s lawn.
© Universal Press Syndicate