Why Democrats Should Worry About Republicans’ Newfound Economic Populism

May 7, 2015

It would be a huge mistake for Democrats to dismiss the newfound economic populism of Republican presidential candidates as obviously laughable given Republicans’ deep alliance with corporate America. Republicans are aiming to pull off a populist jiu jitsu, using anger at corporate influence over government to justify even more dismantling of government. It could work.

The good news for progressives is that attention to the squeeze on the middle class and the capture of government by corporations is finally taking center stage in American politics. Pollsters for both political parties are advising candidates to recognize the struggle of families to meet the basics, and the cynicism about government being able to do anything about their problems because it’s under the control of the rich and powerful corporations.

This should be a huge opening for Democrats who are aggressive in assigning blame to corporations and pushing for what should be the obvious solution: stand up to those powerful forces with tough measures. If the banks are screwing homeowners, government should enact regulations that stop bank rip-offs and make housing affordable. If corporations and the rich are profiting from huge loopholes in the tax code, close those loopholes and raise their taxes.

But Republicans on the campaign trail are offering a different solution: if government is captured, then shrink government. Marco Rubio laid it out most clearly in an interview on NPR:

And so I hope the Republican Party can become the champion of the working class because I think our policy proposals of limited government and free enterprise are better for the people who are trying to make it than big government is. The fact is that big government helps the people who have made it. If you can afford to hire an army of lawyers, lobbyists and others to help you navigate and sometimes influence the law, you’ll benefit. And so that’s why you see big banks, big companies, keep winning. And everybody else is stuck and being left behind.

Rand Paul, who champions free-market, anti-regulatory economics, began his announcement speech for president by declaring, “We have come to take our country back from the special interests that use Washington as their personal piggy bank, the special interests that are more concerned with their personal welfare than the general welfare.”

And Carly Fiorina bounced off the scourge of Wall Street abuses, Elizabeth Warren, to turn around Warren’s argument: “Crony capitalism is alive and well. Elizabeth Warren, of course, is wrong about what to do about it. She claims that the way to solve crony capitalism is more complexity, more regulations, more legislation, worse tax codes. And of course the more complicated government gets — and it’s really complicated now — the less the small and the powerless can deal with it.”

It’s easy to laugh at their argument, which can be reduced to “if the fox is getting into the hen house, tear down the hen house.” But it would be foolish to do so. It starts where people are at, as one Republican message guru wrote after the election last fall: “[F]rom the reddest rural towns to the bluest big cities, the sentiment is the same. People say Washington is broken and on the decline, that government no longer works for them — only for the rich and powerful.”

The argument takes advantage of the record-high public distrust of government, reached in no small part because of decades of Republicans stripping government’s effectiveness at tackling problems and championing shrinking government and cutting taxes as the solutions for everything.

Having said that, the current political environment should still be winning turf for Democrats who are willing to tell their own version of the problem and solution. After all, building a hen house that keeps out the foxes is clearly a better way to be sure you get fresh eggs for breakfast. But winning the debate will take something Democrats are not always willing to do: naming villains and pushing solutions that will really address the problems facing American families.

As I wrote in a column analyzing the messages that Democrats who won used last fall, naming specific villains is essential to demonstrating that the candidate understands who is responsible for the problem and is willing to stand up to those powerful forces. Because of our campaign finance system, this is more of a challenge for Democrats. If they actually take on the rich and powerful, it will result in less campaign cash. Republicans don’t have to worry about that, since their patrons understand the game.

Having named the villains, Democrats then need to propose bold solutions that demonstrate that they understand the depth of the problems people face, solutions that people can imagine might actually help. Naming bold solutions is another way to demonstrate to people that you are willing to take on the status quo.

In a debate—whether real or the virtual debates of ad campaigns—Democrats will win if they point out that what Republicans want to do is tear down the hen house, and then name the foxes and describe the fortified, fox-slaying house.

Of course, that’s the biggest question for Hillary Rodham Clinton. Will she name the villains and keep naming them, even though many of them will supply her campaign with funds? Will she advance bold solutions or try to duck tough issues? We know one thing: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and the Draft Warren campaign will be making it tough for her to hide.

It’s a question not just for Clinton, but for every Democrat. Will Democrats be bold enough to advance a politics that meets the despair and cynicism of Americans with directness, honesty, and hope for a better future?