mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Leftie Populism Still Looks Like A Loser

A chunk of the American intelligentsia is permanently convinced that the American people are waiting for a genuinely left-populist message before turning out in large numbers to transform the American political system, and that if the Democrats in particular would just embrace left economic ideas, they could become the dominant party for the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately for the career prospects of those who push this agenda, the people who run on this platform keep losing.  President Walter Mondale, President Dick Gephardt, President Jesse Jackson, President John Kerry, President Dennis Kucinich and President John Edwards all learned how this works.

Today the Gallup Organization has a new poll out that helps explain why leftie populism always looks like a good strategy but never seems to get anybody into the White House.  By a significant margin, voters continue — even in the midst of tough economic times and rising economic inequality — to think it is more important to pursue pro-growth policies for the economy than to reduce inequality.  According to the poll, 82 percent of those asked said it was either extremely important or very important to “grow and expand the economy”, compared to 46 percent who thought it was extremely or very important to “reduce the income and wealth gap between the rich and the poor.”  32 percent think growing the economy is extremely important; only 17 percent feel that way about reducing the income and wealth gap.

This means that even among many liberal or left leaning voters, a pro-growth message will work better than a pro-equality one.  But it also means that there is enough pro-equality sentiment out there that in some congressional districts and even states, that message can win.  At the national level, however, left populism looks like a loser compared to pro-growth.

Moreover, it appears that hard times may strengthen pro-growth rather than pro-equality sentiment.  For the left, it is axiomatic that bad economic times are a period of political opportunity.  That’s why the Obama White House saw the economic crisis as a historic, not to be missed opportunity for sweeping back in 2009.

But that perception looks wrong.  It may be that equality is like the environment: it is perceived as a luxury good by much of the electorate, something you pursue when you think you can afford it, but something you ditch when you worry about the basics.

In any case, it looks as if 2012 is not going to be the year of Huey Long in American politics.  Most voters want jobs and they want growth that will raise the value of their homes and their retirement portfolios more than they want to punish the rich.  It will be interesting to see whether the White House, once it reassures the base, will swing back away from equality rhetoric towards the politics of growth.  If its own polling agrees with Gallup, we are likely to see the left populists pushed back under the bus well before next November.

Features Icon
show comments
  • vbounded

    Professor Read is right that the US public wants jobs and growth that creates jobs. However, Professor Read may be missinformed about GDP because it is inflated due US companies counting production by offshore contract manufacturers, workers, and independent contractors as production in the US. The same is true of the s&p 500, which is disconnected from growth in jobs and wages of US workers.

    If the democrats had their act together, they’d argue for growth and argue that the metrics of GDP and the stock market are only loosely related to either of them.

  • JohnTaylor

    I think the obvious solution for Dems is to work to increase economic inequality through terrible economic policies until more people care about their populist message.

  • Jim

    But vbounded, he did not say anything about the GDP, he said to “grow and expand the economy” without listing any specific criteria. I think most voters would look at employment numbers — what is the unemployment rate, are people terrified of losing their jobs, what is the layoff rate, how long does it take to find a job, does the average person feel safer about their economic prospects.

    And as far a populism is concerned, I don’t care how much any one else is making (as long as my tax money isn’t being sucked up to pay them and give them lush benefits that I don’t have). I care what I make and my wife makes and my kids make. Whenever I hear some politician ranting and raving about how much some rich dude is making, I know what they are really doing is planning on looting middle class incomes.

  • Yahzooman

    People understand that capitalist incentives work. Citizens must be rewarded for work, saving and investing. When they are, the pie expands and wealth is created.

    Progressives seem to think that equal outcomes are more important than being rewarded for one’s own work. Spreading the wealth around, however, distorts the incentives and the pie shrinks. Wealth is destroyed as a result.

    The 2010 elections were a restraining order on progressive policies. The 2012 elections will be a return to normalcy. The real America will be back, baby, in 2013.

  • Jim Miller

    Bob Shrum, check your voicemail.

  • Rick

    Well, I’m all aboard for both, understanding that reducing inequality to me means clearing the way for those at the bottom to rise.

    Any other way is just stealing, with a shabby patina of feelgood sanctimony.


  • LarryD

    They ought to try implementing their equality ideal throughout an institution they absolutely dominate. Harvard, for instance. So, all students ought to receive the same grade, and every Harvard employee ought to be paid the same amount. Right? I bet that wouldn’t go over well. But the attempt might clarify a few minds.

  • Robert

    American lefties are euro-lefties by intellectual birthright and allegiance. And European societies are saturated with envies of all kinds — intellectual, social, income, status.

    (The reasons for these envies are many: too many people sharing too small a space, centuries of feudal social structures, too many tribes leading to too many wars, and more.)

    But because of their euro-allegiance, American lefties never really “get” what drives Americans, and thus they are always urging — in some cases, forcing — remedies that don’t work here.

    It’s a gigantic example of category error. And the sooner we all recognize and repudiate it, the better

  • Daniel

    Most people and most corporations look toward the future not so much at the present situation. People who are poor want their children to have hopes of making it to the top, (like Herman Cain did). They do not like the thought of making it difficult for anyone to emerge from lowly status by succeeding.
    Politicians who look only at the present up to the next election do not understand this.

  • LHog

    Economic growth is a quantity that can be measured. Economic ‘Fairness’, which is what they really mean, is an ethereal subjective principal that can’t be measured and relies on someones judgement. People instinctively know that. Equality would mean everyone is treated the same. We instinctively know that is not possible either and we don’t all want to be treated the same. If a person has abilities and talents greater than another we want to achieve more than the others.
    So ultimately most reasoning people reject the squishy sentiment of equality and fairness and look at the their bank account and decide which they like more, being ‘treated equally’ or the opportunity to earn more.

  • Joseph Somsel

    The continuing electorial solution for the Democratic Party, which largely endorses the populist vision, is lie to the voter, just as they did in 2008.

    Like the song said, “Don’t get fooled again!”

  • Luke Lea

    “more important to pursue pro-growth policies for the economy than to reduce inequality.”

    Well, yeah, when you are in the depths of a recession.

    And what’s this “lefty” stuff anyway: balancing efficiency, growth, AND equity should be the name of the game. The past 40 years have been about efficiency (markets) and growth (GDP) with little thought about equity (redistribution).

    Abe got it right: this government was founded on the proposition that all men are created equal, and that democracy means government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

    Lately it’s been more about government of the top .01 of 1%, by the top .01 of 1%, and for the top .01 of 1%.

    That would be the 10,000 wealthiest families in America, who fund both political parties and control the political agenda. They’ll screw the top 1% if given half a chance.

  • willis

    “By a significant margin, voters continue — even in the midst of tough economic times and rising economic inequality — to think it is more important to pursue pro-growth policies for the economy than to reduce inequality.”

    Reducing income inequality if so important to progressives because of their failure to grasp basic tenets of economics. They see income as a pool of assets that are divied up amongst all the people. This makes it a zero sum game such that the stronger secure a bigger portion at the expense of the weaker. The reality that income does not exist at all until it is produced and that some are more successful because they produce more just makes no sense to them at all.

  • Corlyss

    “Unfortunately for the career prospects of those who push this agenda, the people who run on this platform keep losing. President Walter Mondale, President Dick Gephardt, President Jesse Jackson, President John Kerry, President Dennis Kucinich and President John Edwards all learned how this works.”

    Don’t bet on that as the lesson they learned. They all make very comfortable livings promoting their favorite brand of illusion to . . . people like George Soros, dotcom billionaires, and thinktanks and NGOs. One doesn’t have to be President to prosper.

  • Kebert Xela

    Wasn’t it Long who said fascism would come to America as anti-fascism¿ If so, it is indeed The Year of the Kingfish.

  • teapartydoc

    I wonder. If there was a Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus alive today what would he be trying to reform? Think about it. He went after people who had done very well using public land for their own good. I think if he were alive today he might not be the leftie firebrand we are schooled to think he would be. I think he would be going after all the people and professions that have done well with government jobs and the licensing and accreditation system the government uses to create protected economic enclaves. And this should be the focus of any true reformer for the next generation.

  • LHog

    Willis – “The reality that income does not exist at all until it is produced and that some are more successful because they produce more just makes no sense to them at all.” See Luke Lea above.”Abe got it right: this government was founded on the proposition that all men are created equal, and that democracy means government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.””
    therefore if you have more than me you must give me an equal share of your’s.
    They don’t understand because they are Marxist. LUke Lea even tryie to justify his/her Marxism with a completely out a context reference inferring that the Government owns all money and should distribute it equally.

  • Bonfire of the Idiocies

    Economic inequality is a red herring. We all have different abilities and different levels of desire to succeed. Some have rich parents, most do not. Some make chronically bad choices, some the opposite. Some never learn from repeated mistakes, some are clever to learn from OTHERS’ mistakes. Some care a whole lot about money, others not so much. Show me a government program that can rationally separate these natural factors from other ones such as discrimination or having an “unfair” advantage and I’ll admit we can do something useful about economic inequality. BTW, if one looks one will probably find that a fairly large number of people who have profited from “unfair” advantages are politicians themselves and their cronies. For example, the “no law against insider trading by congress” loophole. “Economic inequality” is basically political code for “who can we steal from now?” If politicians REALLY wanted to do something about unfair advantages in society, they’d start by going home and looking in the mirror.

  • Douglas

    Sadly, equality and economic growth are mutually inconsistent. Measures that promote equality – e.g., that redistribute wealth and income from the productive to the less productive – generally have the consequence of reducing incentives to produce. On the other hand, simply allowing the productive to keep what they produce generally results in wide inequalities.

    Most people in the US understand this tradeoff. The argument is generally over how to balance somewhere in the middle. Prof. Meade notes, correctly in my view, that the public prefers that the balance be drawn on the side of productivity, of economic growth and jobs. But that does not mean that the public wants to give up the vast redistribution mechanisms that we already have – social security, medicare, medicaid, etc. – just that it wants to emphasize growth rather than more radical redistribution.

    Hope this helps.

  • Lavaux

    Leftie populism requires its adherents to believe that their inherent value as citizens is measured by their wealth relative to others. If more wealth is better, then less is worse, and those with less are not as valuable as those with more.

    Is this really true? Is the citizen who lives in a trailer park less valuable than the one living in the McMansion across the street? Is the BMW driving citizen ordering the deep-fried bean burrito more valuable than the citizens making and serving it to her?

    If you ask each one of these citizens to assess their own value, they’ll apply a variety of metrics different from the one leftie populism applies, i.e. relative wealth. If you tell them that they have to value themselves according to their relative wealth, you’ll get a hostile reaction from most of them. Therein lies the leftie progressives’ most intractable problem: Most people continue to believe that they’re more valuable to society than their wealth is.

  • Sam L.

    Many of us, based on a lifetime of observation, believe that any equalizing done will to lower the highs throughout the range rather than raise the lows. I refer to this as “spreading the misery”, not as “spreading the wealth”. The wealth will not be spread by government to the people, but to the government itself.

    John Taylor, are you saying the Dems should just keep on keepin’ on doing what they’re doing?

  • David Taylor, MD

    An amusing mash-up. My recollection is that Mondale, et al, lost the presidency for reasons other than their leftist-populist messages, and I would be reluctant to reduce complex political battles to single, simplistic slogans.

    Instead, our current attention to income disparities in the U.S. is fairly recent, and the contrast you cite — economic growth versus reducing income disparity – is surely a false dichotomy. First, the extraordinary gap between the income of managerial high-earners and the income of the rest of us is a new phenomenon. Second, and perhaps more important, anyone listening to popular sentiment hears that average Americans expect that income disparities will shrink as the economy grows and there are more economic opportunities – in other words the two choices are not mutually exclusive.

    More important, the left-populist message has not been about the virtues of reducing income disparities. That’s a very recent and rather isolated discourse. The traditional left-progressive message has been about providing a living wage for those who have jobs, minimal standards of living for those who do not have jobs, and assistance – not wealth – to people who find themselves trapped in cycles of poverty. You can argue about the social science, but I don’t think that ‘reducing income disparities’ in the simplistic sense of equaling out everyone’s income, has ever been the issue for left-progressive or populist politicians.

    The contrast that I have recognized is a set of liberal left policies that promote direct assistance to individuals and families, on the one hand, and a set of conservative right policies that promote assistance to business and industry (with the assumption that promoting economic growth through business and industry will ultimately improve the lives of individuals) on the other. Current liberal outrage about income disparity is simply a way of highlighting the fact that business friendly policies under a conservative president for 8 years led to massive incomes for those at the top of the corporate world while a decade of down-sizing pressures to reduce costs and increase shareholder profits failed to produce the benefits that economic growth should have provided for ordinary working people.

  • Mike

    Greater equality can increase consumer demand and hence growth. That needs to be the message.

  • Jack

    I have yet to hear a convincing argument for the leftist obsession about income inequity. It’s all a big “so what?”

  • Tim

    A certain income inequality is normal, even desirable. Past some point, it is an indicator of an economy and a political system that is doomed. Read the history. One doesn’t have to be a leftist or socialist to be concerned. Growth is usually a good thing as long as the rewards are distributed according to market contributions. This stopped happening sometime in the 80’s. Thoughtful citizens from across the political spectrum should be concerned and discussing solutions that don’t fall into the trap of either status quo (what’s the problem?) or socialist redistribution. Acting like nothing is wrong is a dangerous delusion.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service