Friday, April 24, 2015

There's more than one way to populism

Here we sit near the end of April 2015. That is (counts months on fingers) a long time (recites "30 days have September.." under breath) like, you know, a lot of months and days before anybody does any voting or caucusing in the 2016 Presidential primaries.

But already there have been (counts every webpage on the internet) eleventy million thousand campaign thinkpieces written about the significance of Hillary Clinton's flirtation with "populist" politics. Is she? Isn't she? Does it even matter?

The answer is she's not and, no, it doesn't matter, but that's not important right now.  What is interesting, though, is that Greg Sargent introduces his obligatory Hillary Populism piece noting a position she has taken on a social wedge issue.
Is Hillary Clinton’s embrace of populist and/or progressive rhetoric and policy positions consistent with her long-held convictions? Or is she only doing it belatedly, to shore up her support on the left, and to keep pace with the passions unleashed among Democrats by the rise of Elizabeth Warren and other factors?

The question gained some steam last week when Clinton shifted her stances on two key issues. She came out for a Constitutional right to gay marriage, when previously she’d said it should be left to the states, and embraced drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants, a position she’d previously opposed.
Hillary is being credited with (some say accused of) taking a "populist" tack by strongly supporting (well, flip-flopping towards, anyway) a Constitutional right to gay marriage as well as some of the "Warren wing" anti-Wall Street economic rhetoric. 
What’s more, the rise of Elizabeth Warren — who has spent decades on these issues — is a real phenomenon. It has shifted the debate among many liberals towards the desire for a fully fleshed out economic worldview and agenda similar to hers, one premised on the idea that the rules are rigged in favor of the wealthy and major corporations; that the rules need to be changed; and that they need to be enforced. We don’t know where Clinton is yet on many of the details and don’t have that firm a grasp of her broader ideological instincts.
Bullshit. We are quite familiar with Hillary's "broader ideological instincts." The name Clinton is the preferred brand label of the right leaning pro-corporate wing of the Democratic Party and has been for over 20 years now. The notion that anyone needs to wait-and-see where a long time dominant national figure like Hillary might stand ideologically is absurd.  But know-nothingism is the name of the game in the political press so that's what we'll have to play.

Leaving aside Clinton's obvious insincerity for now, let's take her sudden sympathy for marriage equality and faux-Warrenism at face value. Does this combination of positions comprise the formula for populism in 2016?

Compare this platform with the bizarre musings of Governor Bobby Jindal published this week in the New York Times. According to the headline, Bobby is "holding firm" against gays.... getting married in his state. That would seem to be the exact opposite of Hillary's supposedly populist stance. But then we come upon this unexpected framing.
Our country was founded on the principle of religious liberty, enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Why shouldn’t an individual or business have the right to cite, in a court proceeding, religious liberty as a reason for not participating in a same-sex marriage ceremony that violates a sincerely held religious belief?

That is what Indiana and Arkansas sought to do. That political leaders in both states quickly cowered amid the shrieks of big business and the radical left should alarm us all.

As the fight for religious liberty moves to Louisiana, I have a clear message for any corporation that contemplates bullying our state: Save your breath.
Bobby's argument goes beyond the tired conservative defense of traditional family values against elite liberal intellectuals to throw in a swipe at corporations in defense of individuals and small businesses.  He continues.
Some corporations have already contacted me and asked me to oppose this law. I am certain that other companies, under pressure from radical liberals, will do the same. They are free to voice their opinions, but they will not deter me. As a nation we would not compel a priest, minister or rabbi to violate his conscience and perform a same-sex wedding ceremony. But a great many Americans who are not members of the clergy feel just as called to live their faith through their businesses. That’s why we should ensure that musicians, caterers, photographers and others should be immune from government coercion on deeply held religious convictions.

"Some corporations" and some "radical liberals" are trying to bully Bobby Jindal but he will not back down. In Bobby's confusing version of things, this isn't really even about "gay marriage" per se.  Here's a Matt Taibbi reaction to Jindal which notes,
As has become the fashion (and this is almost certainly a strategy cooked up by some high-priced, focus-group-humping consultancy inside the Beltway), Jindal carefully avoided the word "gay" when explaining his opposition to gay marriage.
Why Jindal's consultants would want him to do this is an interesting topic unto itself. Taibbi describes it as a weakness in the confused GOP electoral strategy.  I don't think that's entirely accurate. While it's true that polling suggests to us that, as Taibbi puts it, "the children of older Republicans no longer agree with their nutbar parents on these key social issues," there are subtleties that govern the way these changing attitudes translate to electoral politics.  And these subtleties are not entirely rational.

It is possible, for instance, to harbor a more tolerant attitude than your "nutbar" parents and at the same time resent the unseen external forces at work in promoting the new norms. Maybe your crazy racist uncle is a pain in your ass at Thanksgiving, but he's still your crazy racist uncle, right? If you have even the slightest bit of familial sympathy for that guy, you might buy Jindal's pitch that he's got a "religious liberty" to persist in his beliefs whether you actually share those beliefs or not.  So the old Republican trick of describing bigots as the real victims of "reverse racism" or "political correctness" is still a playable card.  It just requires a slightly different approach.

Meanwhile crazy uncles everywhere are in real trouble from unseen external forces which is why aspiring 2016 candidates are taking steps to strengthen their populist bona fides now. I've noted previously that Republicans have been working this angle since the midterm elections. And, at that time, at least, it was working quite well for them.  Here's a poll taken last fall which showed:

1) Voters believe the rules unfairly favor the very wealthy.

2) Voters believe Republicans are most likely to fix this.

Even Bill Cassidy employed faux-populist rhetoric during the Louisiana Senate campaign.   Cassidy addressed a question about income inequality, not with some tired trickle-down rherotic as you might expect, but instead by going after Barack Obama and, implicitly, his ties to Wall Street. Cassidy tells us,  "Under this President income inequality has increased. If you own stock under this President you have made a lot of money."  And this is true. (At least in the way Cassidy wants you to understand such a statement it is true.)  And the President is doing nothing to improve his record or his image in this regard. In fact, this week, he is aggressively making matters worse.

So it comes as little surprise that Bobby and Hillary are both talkin' some folksy populism right now.  You can decide for yourself which candidate's "anti-corporate" tough talk is the more disingenuous but that's really just splitting hairs. Certainly Hillary doesn't buy a word of her own bullshit neither does Jindal. What matters is that each candidate perceives and is trying to play to the angry vote.

They just happen to play the the marriage equality game differently.  Hillary believes the "populist" move is to hop onto the bandwagon of an increasingly accepted civil rights cause.  Jindal is making a more complicated appeal to the idea of a beleaguered class of marginalized victims of that cause. His hope is this will resonate with voters concerned about the disappearing American middle class itself.

Which is the correct strategy?  Probably both of them. At least in their respective primaries, they are. Once the general election comes around, this isn't likely to be a dominant issue. Which is just as well since it doesn't look like Jindal will be involved in the general election.  At least, right now it doesn't look that way... but that's a different post.


Nolaresident said...

"Under this President income inequality has increased. If you own stock under this President you have made a lot of money."

It depends. How much did your 401k, portfolio (large or small) or whatever else lose during the Great Recession? How long did it take to recover to its pre-recession level?

jeffrey said...

Yes, absolutely. Middle class Americans have seen their retirement plans raided by thieves and banksters. Cassidy's construction "if you own stock" is only meant to implicate the "winners" in this transaction, of course.