I am really on(to) something with this populism blog. Paul Krugman regularly wraps himself in a populist mantle – in too many posts to link. But his ideological opposite at the New York Times, Ross Douthat, has been doing much the same of late. (If you are a right-winger and think Douthat is some kind of sellout, you might want to get over that; for one thing, he is reading way more of what you claim to love than you are, namely all the books and articles from the right-wing press…but more importantly he’s still under 40 and first in line for a high-level job with the next Republican President. If you don’t realize you’re looking at pre-Nixon Kissinger, I can’t help you.) Wait a minute, how can Krugman and Douthat both be populist? Doesn’t make sense, does it?

That’s why this blog is here – because the idea of populism is still very much a moving target. For Krugman, it’s always the 99% versus the 1%; for Douthat, it’s just a little less loyal to corporate interests and a little more loyal to working people. Someone like Steve Coll is only confusing the issue in the lead story in this week’s New Yorker. Colorado is split between parties, and thus populism wins? Obama said populist things that poll well with independent voters? If we could only agree on what populism is, these statements might be redundant – or need better support.

Luckily, Forbes.com has come to the rescue. In this article right here, Cedric Muhammad lays out a far clearer and frankly better definition of populism than most of the media bothers with. Choice quote: Populism “differs from progressivism not in urban or rural dimensions but more in its dual skepticism of government and market forces.” (emphasis his) Ahhhhh yes. Now you’re talking. Say it again: dual skepticism of government and market forces. That, my friends, is the populism that this blog seeks to emulate. And that’s a little bit about why Krugman and Douthat look like they’re on the same page (uh, other than literally).

Muhammad goes on about why we’re having such a populist moment – basically, the recession. He writes:

What most have forgotten since 2008 is that initially, there was agreement between the Left and Right that elite institutions, primarily those in the banking sector, were responsible for the mortgage crisis. In private polling that I conducted at that time for national elections, I found that 90% of Americans – at equal levels for Democrat and Republican voters – were against ‘the government bailout of Wall St. banks’ (that is how we worded the question). On the issue of the bailout and who was responsible, those divided in their support of Senator McCain or Obama for President, were united in their opposition to both government and elite market forces.

Great point! Much like 9/11, I don’t think the pain of witnessing that collapse really went away 5-6 years later. Helpfully, Muhammad goes on to explain the successes and failures of Democrats and Republicans in this context – sometimes they harness the populist energy appropriately, sometimes they don’t. (He didn’t say this, but I will: that Republican convention in 2012 was a clusterfrak. The Republicans saw the populism throughout America – very much including the Tea Party – and said: oh, ok, then, SMALL BUSINESS OWNERS. Which wasn’t utterly crazy. But no one told them that a room full of bosses starts to look like its own kind of elitism to the working stiffs back home. Get some paycheck-to-paycheck people there next time, GOP.) Mostly, they don’t, which is why a plurality of people now identify as Independent, instead of Democratic or Republican. That’s a change.

The one area where I part company with Muhammad is this idea, apparently descended from the French Revolution, that the populists must necessarily be “against” elite institutions, namely the government and bigger businesses. Krugman agrees and would have us perenially storming the Bastille. I’m closer to Douthat here: I doubt that most Americans, or say just my beloved 51%, really prefer a conflict with the companies whose ads they enjoy or even the groups represented by those pretty neo-classical buildings in Washington D.C. I think what people really hope for is an ever-expanding pie, where working people can make a better living – however slight – for their children. But if the pie can’t expand, if this is a zero-sum game, and frankly if the government and Wall Street is taking 10x more of the pie than it did 30 years ago…well, yeah, okay, “against” becomes part of populism. I just feel that in these moments of apparent populist rage, it’s good to remind the “best and the brightest” that the less-best and less-brightest don’t want to have to take anything away from you. But when you cage a tiger…

Populism has a central contradiction: if we’re so skeptical of government and the market, who the heck is supposed to represent us? Unions? Are we supposed to be leader-less, like Occupy at its best (worst?)? How can “the people” truly make their voice heard, their opinions ratified, without some institutional help? So that’s a problem, but a little humility and willingness to be creative can help. Another problem: isn’t government and business the result of long-ago populism? Well, yes and no. When you have 5000 lobbyists each fighting for their piece of the pie, and 5000 businesses claiming privileges that regular taxpayers don’t get, that’s not really in the interests of the 51% anymore. And that’s what has to evolve.

So, where can we find evidence of new populism and its successes, beyond pot legalization in two states? The drumbeats about the National Surveillance Administration over-reach are one example. The failure of the Stop Online Piracy Act is another. A third thing is this Trans-Pacific Partnership. Since Jay Leno retired (again!) last night, let me say: “Do you know about this? Have you heard about this?” Basically, it’s NAFTA times 4. Remember how the populist Ross Perot’s big issue to unite left and right was NAFTA? Well, 20 years later, we’re teaming up again with Canada and Mexico to try to make a bigger team with a somewhat random group of ocean-bordering countries. Could this agreement actually be good for the 51%? Well, sure, it’s possible. But do we even know that’s what’s being attempted? Or are a few lobbyists/businesses conspiring with our government to secure favorable terms for themselves against the majority of us? I don’t want to believe that our President would cut a deal that would hurt 51% of Americans. But then, I have to wonder when I read the reliably populist Elizabeth Warren’s statement (in the same article):

“Why are trade deals secret? I’ve heard people actually say that they have to be secret because if the American people knew what was going on, they would be opposed. Think about that.”

Let’s all think about that until I see you here next week.