Emotional Populism

Iowa rewards populists. That’s how Mike Huckabee and John Edwards and, to a certain extent, Barack Obama did so well last week. According to George Will, Huckabee and Edwards are cut from the same cloth (more on Obama in a bit) and their class-warfare dependent messages are flawed:

[Huckabee] and John Edwards, flaunting their histrionic humility in order to promote their curdled populism, hawked strikingly similar messages in Iowa, encouraging self-pity and economic hypochondria. Edwards and Huckabee lament a shrinking middle class. Well.
Economist Stephen Rose, defining the middle class as households with annual incomes between $30,000 and $100,000, says a smaller percentage of Americans are in that category than in 1979 — because the percentage of Americans earning more than $100,000 has doubled from 12 to 24, while the percentage earning less than $30,000 is unchanged. “So,” Rose says, “the entire ‘decline’ of the middle class came from people moving up the income ladder.” Even as housing values declined in 2007, the net worth of households increased.
Huckabee told heavily subsidized Iowa — Washington’s ethanol enthusiasm has farm values and incomes soaring — that Americans striving to rise are “pushed down every time they try by their own government.” Edwards, synthetic candidate of theatrical bitterness on behalf of America’s crushed, groaning majority, says the rich have an “iron-fisted grip” on democracy and a “stranglehold” on the economy. Strangely, these fists have imposed a tax code that makes the top 1 percent of earners pay 39 percent of all income tax revenues, the top 5 percent pay 60 percent, and the bottom 50 percent pay only 3 percent.

But the class-warfare card is played so often because it works well, at least for a while. And a lot of people really think that their acute economic frailty is due to some “other” taking money away from them–or at the least, taking more than their “fair share.” However, both think that government is the solution. Will, again:

Although Huckabee and Edwards profess to loathe and vow to change Washington’s culture, each would aggravate its toxicity. Each overflows with and wallows in the pugnacity of the self-righteous who discern contemptible motives behind all disagreements with them, and who therefore think opponents are enemies and differences are unsplittable.
The way to achieve Edwards’ and Huckabee’s populist goal of reducing the role of “special interests,” meaning money, in government is to reduce the role of government in distributing money. But populists want to sharply increase that role by expanding the regulatory state’s reach and enlarging its agenda of determining the distribution of wealth. Populists, who are slow learners, cannot comprehend this iron law: Concentrate power in Washington and you increase the power of interests whose representatives are concentrated there.

Yet, Will thinks Obama is different:

He is the un-Edwards and un-Huckabee — an adult aiming to reform the real world rather than an adolescent fantasizing mock-heroic “fights” against fictitious villains in a left-wing cartoon version of this country.

But he is a liberal and there is little doubt in my mind that his “reform” will also see a growth in government. Obama has also flirted with populism here and there–particularly the everyman, we-shop-at-Target variety–and mixes it in with a “unity” theme; all in an attempt to appeal across the political spectrum. It worked in Iowa and probably will in New Hampshire. For sure, Obama is a fine speaker and comes across as pleasant and likable. And while various wonks have been explaining that his rhetoric is “short on details,” that hasn’t hurt him so far. In fact, it is his ability to speak in heartwarming generalities and pleasant platitudes that has made him so appealing.
That makes him a populist of another sort.
While Huckabee and Edwards appeal to the emotions of fear and distrust and anger–which is generally viewed as the more traditional vein of populism–Obama is also a populist by appealing to the desire for hope and happiness via a non-ideological, “agent for change” image. The common denominator revealed in the rhetoric and records of all three is that none is afraid of turning to government to “help,” but a government run by them, not the elite “other.” Obama is similar to JFK and Reagan and even Bill Clinton in that he offers a hopeful message. But whereas the first two integrated their core philosophies into their rhetoric–indeed, they were persuasive because they believed in their philosophy (as for Clinton, he believed what he said, at the time)–Obama tends to hide his real governing philosophy–left-liberalism–behind his appealing rhetoric. At some point, Obama will have to begin to explain his ideas….won’t he?

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16 years ago

Obama has outlined his policies in the debates and in his speeches. And on his website, like every other candidate.

16 years ago

I shudder to think what happens if the Dems don’t give us the Wicked Witch as a candidate. We all should have gone up to NH and rang doorbells for her cause if Obama doesn’t get caught in bed with the proverbial “dead woman or live boy” he may well win. Of course in RI he could probably win even with the “live boy”.

16 years ago

Good analysis, Marc. I hadn’t seen all of this.

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