by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
George Washington University professor Amitai Etzioni, an adviser to the Carter White House, points out in an Atlantic column that the current brand of Democratic demagoguery seems to ignore the “popular” element of “populism.”
The debate between Democrats who want to play up populist themes (let’s call them the Elizabeth Warren camp) and those who favor centrist ones (the Hillary Clinton crowd) ignores a major division among the various themes that carry the populist label. The difference is crucial because, as we will see shortly, the data show that some populist ideas are much less popular than others.
Populism usually refers to the idea that power should rest in the hands of the little guy, and not in the government or some elite. Public-opinion polls show that this basic form of populism has wide appeal. One of every two Americans believes that most politicians are corrupt (51 percent, according to a 2013 poll of national voters); 76 percent that special interests wield too much power; and 88 percent that big money has too much sway. Very low on people’s “trust” lists are all those perceived as powerful, including not just the government but also banks and corporations and labor unions. This kind of populism appeals to both those on the left, such as the Occupy Wall Street folks, and to Tea Partiers. (Polls show that, at least for a while, at least one in 10 Americans favored both!) I call this popular populism.
Much of the appeal is lost—that is, populism becomes much less popular—once leftist themes join the mix. There is little support for policies that look like wealth transfers, taking from the rich and giving to poor, reducing inequality, or making sacrifices for the common good. Large segments of the right and center view these policies as taking from “us” and giving to “them.” That’s why Social Security is so popular, while welfare is not. It’s the reason Medicare is very popular and Medicaid is much less so.
Opinions about what the top problems facing the nation are differ somewhat from poll to poll and over time. However, in one poll after another, popular populism concerns rank much higher than leftist ones.