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7/11/2005

Populism is not just for the poor

A new 'meme' (sorry) is picking up steam in the blogosphere (sorry again) - the idea being that the appeal of economic populism is limited because most people aren't poor. Battlepanda quotes Steve Rose:
Liberals have relied on its identification with the “little guy” to be a unifying force based on a common self-interest. The data that are presented in this article would suggest that the number of people that directly benefit from activist state welfare policies is less than one quarter of the population.
And Bradford Plumer:
On the other hand, a more enduring progressive electoral majority definitely seems like it would be harder to forge on economic populism alone, barring a return of the Great Depression.
Battlepanda adds:
...the truth is the bulk of Americans are simply too well-off to benefit from the economic programs that Democrats are pushing for ... In order to forge a sturdy coalition for progressive economic policies, Democrats would have to rely not on the individual self interests of voters, but a moral sense that helping the poor is the right thing to do.

...It goes without saying that I still think that single-payer health care, a stronger social safety net etc. etc. are better policies. But I think it's clear that it is futile to pretend they always have short-term economic benefits for most Americans.
The data?
Only about 11% of Americans qualify for safety net programs (aside from retirement programs).

Another 12% have incomes just above the cutoff for safety net programs.

The number of good jobs has increased a lot in the past 50 years. Today, only 34% of male workers and 10% percent of female workers are part of the traditional "industrial proletariat."
I think, though, that everybody's missing something very important: economic populism is not just about the poorest of the poor; conveying a populist message is not synonymous with promoting 'safety net' programs. Populism, properly construed, is about defending the interest of the poor and the middle class.

Many members of the middle class aren't as well off as these statistics would indicate. It is true that most people don't rely on the 'safety net', but it's also true that many middle class families are forced to rely on two incomes, and consumer debt is exploding - increasing at something like twice the rate that wages are; the average household credit card debt is about $8000 (compared to about $3000 in 1990) - as are personal bankruptcies. And for many, job security is a fairy tale; total disaster is one layoff away. An acquaintance of mine was recently traveling in the midwest, and stopped at a rest station to wash up and shave. Another man was doing the same thing in an adjacent sink, and gave my friend a knowing looking, saying "So you got laid off too, huh?" The rapidity with which one can go from a relatively stable, middle-class existence to being homeless is sobering; those who "work hard and play by the rules," to use Bill Clinton's famous phrase, should not have to worry about this happening to them.

Genuine populism speaks to these people, in addition to the desperately poor; far from being of limited appeal, this kind of approach would have the broadest appeal imaginable. The not-rich outnumber the rich by quite a large margin.

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