Magazine article The American Prospect

The People, Yes

Magazine article The American Prospect

The People, Yes

Article excerpt

AS OUR COVER PACKAGE OF ARTICLES SUGGESTS, the Democrats triumphed in 2006 not just because of Iraq and Republican blunders running the gamut from Katrina to macaca, but because Democrats at last ran as economic populists. Although the economy was not considered Topic A by the pundit class, nearly every Democrat who picked up a Republican seat articulated the economic distress felt by regular people.

Populists get bad press. The New York Times, exploring the surprising role of populism in a front-page piece November 12, wrote an odd headline: "For Incoming Democrats, Populism Trumps Ideology." But populism is an ideology--the ideology of using government to help regular people and counteract the financially powerful.

Populism can have an ugly face when it scapegoats immigrants for the pocketbook distress of ordinary folks, rather than placing the blame where it belongs--on the politically dominant financial elite. Lou Dobbs' bestselling book, The War on the Middle Class, is marred by streaks of nativism, which also infected the original populist movement of the 1890s. But the press too readily puts all populism in this category, just as it disparages class warfare--as if top-down class warfare were not what we have today in America. The progressive populism of the New Deal was salutary class warfare of regular Americans against economic royalists. This brand, which resonates in the politics of a Sherrod Brown, is precisely the antidote to nativism.

NOW THAT DEMOCRATS HAVE RECOVERED their economic souls, can they deliver? Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have identified the low-hanging fruit: Raise the federal minimum wage. Require a genuine prescription drug benefit under public Medicare. For Democrats, it is heads--I win, tails--you lose. Bush can sign these bills, bending to Democratic leadership on pocketbook issues. Or he can veto them, nicely demonstrating the difference between the parties.

But these measures don't fundamentally change the dynamics of the deregulated, privatized, and globalized economy that has been undermining economic security for three decades. To reverse the misfortunes of the broad, working middle class, Democrats would need to reinvent the managed capitalism that thrived between the late 1940s and early 1970s. That would mean re-regulating much of the economy, and tying trade to decent social standards, so that a managed economy at home is not undermined by laissez-faire globally. …

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