Follow-Up, Part II: Obstacles To Economic Populism In America

We talked a lot about the voters when we talked about populism.  I hammered on the theme of how divisions among the working and middle classes make appeals to economic populism very hard to sustain.  We touched on the racial divide, ethnic tensions, and regional differences.

We also mentioned some – but hardly all- of the structural obstacles to Occupy movement type populism.  As a final follow-up, here I’ll list them more exhaustively.  Peruse this list, weep or cheer, and then either add your own or take issue with any of mine in comments.

  1. Liberals are a distinct minority in the United States.  Only about 20% of Americans identify as liberal, not enough to ever come close to a majority or even be particularly useful in a two-party system.  Yeah, yeah.  Many moderates support liberal priorities, such as protecting the big entitlement programs.  But they are reluctant to support expanding the welfare state, especially since many liberals are upper-middle class cultural liberals who on economic issues are more libertarian than populists.
  2. Federalism.  Letting states choose many of their own social welfare policies reduces pressure on the national government to provide more economic support for regular people because voters who live in the blue states can have more activist governments in many areas (better funded schools, more Medicaid eligibility, etc.)
  3. A two-party system.  The bigger a majority a party holds, the more it relies on marginal districts.  Example:  Democrats win big in 2006-08, but win more reddish districts and states, whose representatives become the swing votes in Congress.  Devastatingly for economic populism, the Republican Party seems to grow more conservative these days whether they expand or shrink the number of seats they hold.  Why this is true would make a great discussion and I want tio talk about it next schedule.
  4. Senate mal-apportionment.  Small states tend to have few poor people, especially racial and ethnic minority poor, because of their lack of big cities.  Also, many states – not just small ones! — are dominated by a single industry that its senators must protect if they are to survive in their jobs, even at the expense of the economic interests of the bulk of their constituents.  Examples:   NY/finance, Michigan/autos,  Iowa/corn, West Virginia/coal.  This is a huge obstacle to economic populism.
  5. The filibuster makes #3 and #4 much, much worse because nothing passes the Senate without the approval of the 59th and 60th least liberal senator.  They are usually from a small state, which tend to be conservative and swarmed over by powerful lobbyists who know they are the swing votes.  (Max Baucus, Ben Nelson)
  6. The courts:  Forget the Warren Court.  The judicial system in America was designed to be conservative and anti-populist, like the senate, and that’s the way it usually has functioned.  Now that the whole system is dominated by conservative judges who are very young and live to be very old, this will only change very, very slowly.

Gee, that was fun.  I didn’t even mention the role of money and lobbying and I could list a half-dozen more without breaking a sweat.

Your thoughts, additions/subtractions?


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