The Problem With Populism

Should Democrats try to exploit resentments over race or resentments over class? Here’s an idea. What if we dropped appeals to resentment altogether?

Every Wednesday, Thomas B. Edsall writes a new Guest Essay (no longer to be referred to as “opeds”) in the New York Times. Edsall is unerringly thoughtful and even-handed, if from a basically liberal perspective. He does deep dives into issues (mostly related to race and class and the perceptions of blue collar voters) using academic research and conversations with pollsters and strategists.

But today I read the rare Edsall piece that misses the mark entirely for me. His column this morning was about research that had kicked up some dust on the left because it threatens the core of the identity-based Democratic argument these days. The researchers found that appeals on the same issue (affordable housing, for example) that were centered on race polled more poorly than those based on class.

Edsall wrote that, “The authors, Micah English and Joshua L. Kalla, who are both political scientists at Yale, warned proponents of liberal legislative proposals that


Despite increasing awareness of racial inequities and a greater use of progressive race framing by Democratic elites, linking public policies to race is detrimental for support of those policies.

That made sense to some of the Democratic strategists that Edsall quoted. They said it was obvious that when you cast an argument in terms of a benefit that will be enjoyed by members of a group that is not your own, you’ll likely get a less supportive response. Others said that it was important to emphasize race anyway, essentially because it motivated Black voters and White liberals in the Democratic base, and those turned off by it would vote Republican anyway.

Thomas B. Edsall missed the mark today. The question isn’t what kind of populism Democrats should practice, but whether they should be populists at all.

A framing that some researchers said might work best is something like this:

No matter where we come from or what our color, most of us work hard for our families. But today, certain politicians and their greedy lobbyists hurt everyone by handing kickbacks to the rich, defunding our schools, and threatening our seniors with cuts to Medicare and Social Security. Then they turn around and point the finger for our hard times at poor families, Black people, and new immigrants. We need to join together with people from all walks of life to fight for our future, just like we won better wages, safer workplaces, and civil rights in our past.

I like the first sentence of that, but not the rest of it. It goes from a positive statement about common ground to a divisive populist attack. What was missing in Edsall’s analysis was what most interested me: how would an argument that mentioned neither race nor class fare?

For me, the question isn’t whether we should emphasize a populist message based on race or one based on class, but whether populism is a good approach at all from either a policy or political perspective. I don’t think it is. Any populist message is about division; it’s all about who you hate and who you blame. Much better to emphasize a positive message about shared responsibility and shared values regardless of race or class.

So, here’s how I might craft a statement designed to get support:

No matter where we come from or what our color, most of us work hard for our families. But too often hard work doesn’t result in a fair reward. Too many of us struggle to pay the bills, afford good health care, save for our kids education or for our own retirement someday. We should live in a society where anybody who works hard and plays by the rules can afford a good life for themselves and their families.

I have to believe that a statement like that would be overwhelmingly popular. It contains no overt appeals based on race or class and it doesn’t set up anyone as the enemy. It is purely aspirational and it touches fundamental American values of work, fairness and equality.

The lurch toward populism in recent years — whether the White nationalist brand popular with Republicans or the race and class formula Democrats are now arguing over — is a fundamentally unhealthy thing for our country. I think it’s just wrong in terms of both politics and substance. It would be better to appeal to what we have in common and to our shared values as Americans.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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