Saturday, May 10, 2008


JONATHAN CHAIT THE NEW REPUBLIC Conservative populism and liberal populism are entirely different things. Liberal populism posits that the rich wield disproportionate influence over the government and push for policies often at odds with most people's interest. Conservative populism, by contrast, dismisses any inference that the rich and the non-rich might have opposing interests as "class warfare." Conservative populism prefers to divide society along social lines, with the elites being intellectuals and other snobs who fancy themselves better than average Americans.

Consider this analysis recently offered by Bill Clinton in Clarksburg, West Virginia: "The great divide in this country is not by race or even income, it's by those who think they are better than everyone else and think they should play by a different set of rules." This is precisely the dynamic that allows multimillionaires like George W. Bush and Bill O'Reilly to present themselves as being on the side of the little guy. A more classic expression of conservative populism cannot be found. . .

Likewise, Bill Clinton recently declared, "The people in small towns in rural America, who do the work for America, and represent the backbone and the values of this country, they are the people that are carrying her through in this nomination." The corollary--that strong values and hard work is in shorter supply among ethnically heterogeneous urban residents--is left unstated. Hillary Clinton's statement about "hard- working Americans, white Americans" simply made explicit a theme that conservative populists usually keep implicit.

Liberal populism is mostly harnessed to a concrete legislative program aimed at broadening prosperity. Al Gore's "people versus the powerful" campaign focused on his differences with Bush over issues like regulation of HMOs and progressive taxation. Conservative populism, by contrast, is a way of exploiting the grievances it identifies without redressing them. It has an ever- shifting array of targets--Michael Dukakis's veto of a law requiring students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or the rantings of Jeremiah Wright--but no way to knock them down.

Conservative populists sometimes ape liberal populism by promising material benefits to average people. But the promise is structured so as to pose no threat to any wealthy economic interest. George W. Bush offered tax cuts to the middle class, but paired them with far larger tax cuts for the rich, so that, ultimately, the middle class bore a larger proportion of the tax burden.

Hillary Clinton's embrace of the gas tax holiday is a miniature example of the same pattern. Her plan, which rests upon the political principle that high gasoline prices are unacceptable and that the federal gas tax is a burden on hard-pressed Americans, is highly congenial to the interests of oil companies. Yet she presents it as an assault on Big Oil, much as Bush presented his tax cuts as a way to force the rich to pay a higher share of the burden of government. . .

The liberal populist sees politics as a series of quantifiable trade-offs between competing interests. The conservative populist offers an appeal that can't be quantified: Who shares your values? Who is more manly? (James Carville: "If she gave him one of her cojones, they'd both have two.")


At May 10, 2008 5:54 PM, Anonymous wellbasically said...

Well that was a terrible article.

The most conservative populist issue is immigration.

There is a much bigger divide between populists and elitists than between Democratic and Republican populists.

At May 10, 2008 7:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So we're good and they're bad? Thanks for straightening that out Mr. Chait.

At May 12, 2008 1:50 PM, Anonymous Brad said...

I don't think that the two have to be mutally exclusive. Being for the little guy is going to mean that you are against the influence of the few who have all the money.

At June 6, 2008 6:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, Bill O'Reilly and George W. Bush always say they are for the people - but, in reality, they are for war and not for the people.


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