Populism's bad guys

August 11, 2011

This week's buzz piece is Drew Westen's long-form complaint about Obama's lackluster performance as a reformer in the mold of the Roosevelts. There's a lot there, not all of it entirely persuasive or even accurate, but one of the main takeaways is this:

The president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem, who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others' misery has no agency and hence no culpability.

In other words, Obama's rhetoric lacks populist indignation. Westen doesn't actually use the word "populist," perhaps because it rivals "evangelical" for the honor of thorniest term in the language. There is currently a libertarian party in the U.S. know as the Populists; there was once a less marginal one with more progressive aims. Small-"p" populism usually refers not to specific ideology but to a general framework: taking the side of the many against the elite few.

Of late, the most obvious example is the Tea Party, which equates elitism with big government. But the Tea Party's success in Wisconsin has led to an opposing populist message there as well, in the buildup to Tuesday's recall elections (which had mixed results). Unlike Obama, Wisconsin Democrats have not been shy about giving the bad guy a name.

But does populist rhetoric crudely paint individuals as good guys and bad guys? It can. This can be a distraction--recall the to-do about the AIG executive bonuses, which amounted to an especially stinky drop in our bucket of financial slop.

More importantly, singling out individuals as greedy or cruel or otherwise immoral misses the point. Our country and its non-rich masses are struggling under systemic, structural injustice--the problem is so much bigger than bad apples in positions of power. As Westen says, Obama would do well to name the villains in the story he tells the American people. But the villains aren't individuals; they're powers and principalities.

As the Wisconsin situation reveals, populist rhetoric can be made to serve even flatly conflicting goals. But true economic populism--being on the side of the poor against the powers of injustice and inequality--should be a primary norm for Christian thinking about politics. Such a commitment need not be partisan. Serious advocates for the poor will disagree--sometimes starkly--about what course of action or party or candidate is best.

My rule of thumb, however, is to be suspicious of any proposal that claims to help the poor but clearly pursues this not as a primary goal but as a welcome byproduct of what is clearly its main thrust: helping the rich.

Broadly speaking, conservatives don't have a corner on this bizarro-world populism any more than liberals do on actually helping the poor. But the current crop of congressional Republicans has made its pro-rich bottom line pretty clear. All the talk of GOP intransigence on tax increases isn't quite right: while they've insisted that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy be extended, they're opposed to a similar extension of the payroll tax cut, which is aimed at working people. An antitax purist would favor both cuts.

Of course, not everything is a zero-sum game between the rich and poor. There may be specific circumstances in which a rising tide indeed lifts all boats rather than swamping the small ones stuck on the shore. But there's little evidence that this is true as a rule--while there's much evidence of our country's staggering inequality and its ill effects.

Politicians and organizers have often dismissed economic populism as a strategy because it works against the aspirational quality of American class dynamics: the poor don't want to join a poor people's movement; they want to not be poor anymore. But the rich are so rich now that it's hard to even imagine their lives, much less aspire to them. Meanwhile, many of the rungs on the ladder of economic mobility have rusted away.

We are past due for true populist reform, but it need not be based on an us-vs.-them division of individual Americans. It should be based on a narrative that lifts up the many while naming the villain: not the rich themselves but a broken and sinful system that has long favored their interests over everyone else's.


I agree with you when you

I agree with you when you say, "[T]rue economic populism--being on the side of the poor against the powers of injustice and inequality--should be a primary norm for Christian thinking about politics." But elsewhere you sound a bit like William Stringfellow, who believed the politicians, the wealthy, and even white Americans are under the thumb of the principalities and powers. I agree the principalities and powers ought to be named and shamed, but we can't neglect calling those to account who have turned their backs on the least of these. When Jesus castigated the "whitewashed sepulchres," he wasn't talking to principalities.

Fair enough, and I may have

Fair enough, and I may have overstated my point. I don't mean to say that individuals aren't culpable, or that the slave and the slave owner are simply victims of the same injustice. My point is that populism relies on a good vs. evil binary, and it isn't helpful--theologically or, for that matter, practically--to simply villainize individuals in a totalizing way.

Okay, I agree with you,

Okay, I agree with you, Steve. Villianizing individuals in a way that says, "There is no good in you and there never could be any." quickly leads to excusing any villainy done against them. It wrongly puts people outside the pale of the human race. The examples in American history are legion, from the Native Americans and black slaves to homosexuals and Muslims. I'm NOT saying that these groups were or are guilty of the evils they've been accused us, just that naming them as wholly evil has allowed others to treat them murderously.

If those who have treated the least of these wrongly--which is an evil act--are treated in the same way, that would be wrong. But we can call them to repent. And of course, we're called to live with them as neighbors whether they do or not.

>But we can call them to

>But we can call them to repent. And of course, we're called to live with them as neighbors whether they do or not.

Exactly right.

USA economics and grand theft Ponzi

just a couple statistics about the repubs since Reagan took over a couple decades ago.......

The top 1% of the USA income earners took home 9(% of the national income in 1980 (probably acceptable)

Today the top ! % take home variously 23-25% of the national income. A disgrace at least in my book. and btw I am quite well off but believe I should love they neighbor as thy self and have given almost 6 figures to varioous social justice groups

Another example

The top 400 net wealth families take are worth as much as the bottom 100 million. Data I've seen on the web

As Christians we should remember that "Jesus uptset the tables of the money lenders at the temple gates"

And by and large ( the republicans on) Ponzi street (ex wall) are doing exactly the opposite, while the republican religious right always a re pushing their religion and beliefs in everyone else s face.

Also CBO data says American's families lost $15 trillion in net worth due to the latest repub depression.

Enough btw to have paid off the whole national debt.

In my experience calling the

In my experience calling the ones who gave us our economic mess to repent will fall on deaf ears.

those people are so imbued with their own "greatness" and self belief that the world should belong to them, that it will fall on deaf ears.

You might as well try to get the now in hell OBLadin to repent.

An FBI agent told me that about 100 families - the father was so depressed he didnt just commit suicide but killed his whole family as well.

I watch the news on the web quite closely and only knew of 4 cases. We hardly see the tip of the iceberg of the damage done by the mostly republicans on Ponzi street, NYC