Someday, populism will break the over-moneyed logjam of Democrats and Republicans. Current trends will continue, and the country will get increasingly disgusted with both parties while it gets increasingly adherent to the implied (small-d) democratic values of the Internet. At that point, the right candidate will preach populism inspired by the Tea Party AND Occupy. This person – hopefully a popular celebrity – could, in the 2016 election, double Ross Perot’s 20% from 1992. At that point, we will look back on who was most consistently articulating the populist vision during the Obama presidency. Who was this person who helped give arguments to our modern William Jennings Bryan, our 21st-century Huey Long? Let me tell you, it won’t be me. My nominee for that person is Thomas B. Edsall from the New York Times.
This week Edsall named liberals as fund-raising hypocrites. He blasted the influence of money on both parties. He tore to pieces the standard Democratic response that they’re not like the Kochs, because their secretive funds are supposedly not used for selfish interests, but for “good” causes. Edsall wrote:
In the long run, the relatively modest (but growing) dependence of Democrats on dark money, mega-dollar contributors to “super PACs” and other funding mechanisms is corrupting, even as it comes alongside the party’s parallel success in building a powerful small donor base. On issues of taxes, regulation, spending and campaign finance, the Republican Party has established itself as the advocate of the wealthiest Americans. Insofar as the Democratic Party moves in the same direction, it will be unable to act as a counterbalance to the right.
Edsall has a weekly column. The week before, he wrote about the increasing threat of income inequality, and the problem that we know about it and do nothing. Liberals might think Edsall is just another one of their warriors, but in fact Edsall’s rhetoric is careful to include anyone who worries about the growing power of elites, very much including conservatives. After citing all the usual horrible statistics, Edsall goes further, showing how little people in America trust elites, not in contrast to conservatives (sorry liberals!), but in contrast to other countries:
The trends in globalization, wealth concentration, corporate profits, income and employment together raise a crucial question, one I first explored in a column a couple of years ago: Is the “legitimacy of free market capitalism in America facing fundamental challenges?”
This question is even more salient now.
A CNBC/Burson-Marsteller international survey released on Sept. 22 found that in the United States, the world’s free market leader, only 36 percent of the public described corporations as a source of hope, just under the 37 percent who described them as a source of fear. In China, a decisive 84 percent described corporations as a source of hope and only 7 percent said corporations were a source of fear.
In addition, half (51 percent) of the United States sample said “’strong and influential’ corporations are ‘bad,’ even if they are promoting innovation and growth,” according to a summary of the survey by Don Baer, chairman and C.E.O. of Burson-Marsteller.
Globalization and technological innovation have diminished the power of elected officials to control national economic trends, although politicians retain substantial influence over the allocation of the costs and benefits of those trends.
At the moment, Republicans have the whip hand, empowered to prevent Democratic intervention to alter what is now a decisively upward redistribution of the benefits of economic growth.
It is uncertain, however, whether the Democratic Party, even if it were empowered to set the agenda, would adopt policies to restructure the distribution of wealth. Those advocating such initiatives might well face an internal veto exercised by the party’s financial elite and by the party’s affluent constituencies.
The week before was a fascinating dissection of real data on moving poor people to the workforce, refreshingly clear of liberal or conservative pieties. Read it yourself, but it’s nice to read about poor people from someone whose only axe to grind is one of pragmatism.
The week before was pretty much more of the argument that the Kochs and the big liberal donors aren’t as dissimilar as liberals might have you believe.
And the week before was more explicitly saying: HEY LEFT-WINGERS AND RIGHT-WINGERS, SHUT UP AND LEARN FROM EACH OTHER. Edsall wrote that left- right- and centrist explanations for poverty are not “mutually exclusive but mutually reinforcing.” After citing carefully researched reports from both sides, Edsall concluded his article thusly:
Ideological convergence could produce a more empirically grounded understanding of the causes of poverty and of social and economic inequality as well.
Still, there are forces impossible for a single nation operating in a global economy to harness, let alone control: the continuing downward pressure on wages from both domestic and international competition, the offshoring and robotization of jobs, the reluctance of corporations to hire poorly educated and untrained employees, and the continuing improvement of overseas production in developing nations.
Globalization limits the ability of the United States to intervene effectively on behalf of its most needy. Action taken to shield domestic labor from foreign competition threatens to place constraints on economic growth; protectionist trade policies, in turn, drive up consumer costs.
The emergence of a rough ideological consensus on the causes of poverty and inequality would increase the likelihood of, but by no means guarantee, agreement on such initiatives as raising the minimum wage, increasing and expanding the scope of the earned-income tax credit, programs promoting marriage and paternal involvement, as well as stronger efforts to improve the quality of education, especially in poor neighborhoods.
Scientific and technological progress are likely to drive us toward a solution to the problem of poverty only if they take the form of innovations that have a deep impact on economic growth and employment opportunities. To really change things, this impact would have to be comparable to developments spurred by the Industrial Revolution or, more recently, the information revolution. Progress, if it comes, will inevitably bring its own distributive dilemmas.
At the current moment, breakthroughs in innovation – as well as breakthroughs in managing the human costs of innovation — are as likely to occur abroad as in the United States. When it comes to the persistence of poverty and of inequality, it will take all of our resources and capacity for cooperation, along with a more sophisticated, comprehensive understanding of human capital formation, to overcome our domestic squabbling and mount a concerted offensive.
My point is that Edsall came up with all this parsing of complex data in one month of columns. A month! We can’t expect Edsall to keep up this pace of well-researched populist warnings. Instead, we need to start listening to him.