Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Us vs. Them

David Brooks writes a sensible op-ed faulting populism for what's wrong with this country's politics and what will set this country on the wrong track:

[Populists] can’t seem to grasp that a politics based on punishing the elites won’t produce a better-educated work force, more investment, more innovation or any of the other things required for progress and growth.

In fact, this country was built by anti-populists. It was built by people like Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln who rejected the idea that the national economy is fundamentally divided along class lines. They rejected the zero-sum mentality that is at the heart of populism, the belief that economics is a struggle over finite spoils. Instead, they believed in a united national economy — one interlocking system of labor, trade and investment.

Brooks spends an inordinate amount of time bashing populists on the left and not enough time punishing those on the right. In truth, populism, the way it's frequently used in this country, is the politics of opportunism; anytime there's a convenient scapegoat, one group can blame another in order to advance their agenda. For years, it has been nihilistic Republicans who have blamed everything from pacifists, gays, and anti-Christians for the sorry state of American society. In fact, the current crop of GOP senators and congressmen are well-steeped in the persecuted Christian meme, even though they occupied the White House and both houses of Congress for years. This is one of the main reasons I am amazed that any non-Christians can call themselves Republican. Intellectuals on the right (and I use that term very loosely) hide behind populism, knowing it's just a means to their end of permanent conservative power in all levels government. Conspiracy theory? Nuts.

Meanwhile, Democrats aren't immune either. Witness Obama's hit on banks. It has all the trappings of populism ("While we pump billions in aid to keep them from failing, they are paying themselves billions in fat bonus checks. Now it's their turn to pay.") As sensible as Obama's plan is, it nevertheless appeals to a broad base of people who are mad at the big banks, and who are moving their money into small, local banks in protest.

And I've engaged in class warfare myself (see my attack on the ruling Christianist class above and in many other places on my blog). There needs to be someone to blame, right? Well, as Brooks says, "If [populists] continue their random attacks on enterprise and capital, they will only increase the pervasive feeling of uncertainty, which is now the single biggest factor in holding back investment, job creation and growth." Maybe. But populism, used correctly and focused with real data and with the power of reasonable voter anger (not the tea-bagger right, by the way), can be very effective in creating sensible policy (Clinton's welfare reform package, Obama's healthcare reform).

No comments: