Old-style Democrat Michael Lind asks a timely question in a Salon essay entitled Can populism be liberal?
There remains the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, represented more in Congress than in Obama’s White House — and more in the House than in the Senate, a dully complacent millionaires’ club. Can congressional progressives compete with conservatives to channel popular outrage? Unfortunately, progressivism in the form in which it has evolved in the last generation does not resonate with populist producerism.
To begin with, most of the moral fervor of the contemporary center-left has been diverted from the issue of fair rewards for labor to the environmental movement. In theory, environmentalism ought to fit the populist narrative of defending shared goods against special interests. Indeed, clean air and water legislation and public parks and wilderness areas are broadly popular with working-class Americans, not least hunters and fishers. But many environmentalists insist that global warming must be combated not only by low-CO2 energy technology but also by radical lifestyle changes like switching from industrial farming to small-scale organic agriculture and moving from car-based suburbs and exurbs to deliberately “densified” cities with mass transit. Whether environmentalists propose to engineer this utopian social transformation by tax incentives or coercive laws, the campaign triggers the populist nightmare of arrogant social elites trying to dictate where and how ordinary people should live.
Even if it had not been eclipsed by moralistic lifestyle environmentalism, contemporary economic progressivism would be crippled by its own priorities. New Deal liberalism was primarily about jobs and wages, with benefits as an afterthought. Post-New Deal progressivism is primarily about benefits, with jobs and wages as an afterthought. This inversion of priorities is underlined by the agenda of the Democrats since the last election — universal healthcare coverage first, jobs later.
It is only in the post-New Deal era that universal healthcare has become the Holy Grail of the American center-left, rather than, say, full employment or a living wage. Sure, Democrats from Truman to Johnson sought universal healthcare, and Medicare for the elderly was a down payment for that goal. But the main concern of the New Dealers was providing economic growth with full employment, on the theory that if the economy is growing and workers have the bargaining power to obtain their fair share of the new wealth in the form of wages, you don’t need a vastly bigger welfare state. Having forgotten the New Deal’s emphasis on high-wage work, all too many of today’s progressives seem to have internalized the right’s caricature of FDR-to-LBJ liberalism as being primarily about redistribution from the rich to the poor.
This shift in emphasis is connected with the shift in the social base of the Democratic Party from the working class to an alliance of the wealthy, parts of the professional class and the poor. And progressive redistributionism also reflects the plutocratic social structure of the big cities that are now the Democratic base. Unlike the egalitarian farmer-labor liberalism that drew on the populist values of the small town and the immigrant neighborhood, metropolitan liberalism tends to define center-left politics not as self-help on the part of citizens but rather as charity for the disadvantaged carried out by affluent altruists. Tonight the fundraiser for endangered species; tomorrow the gala charity auction for poor children.