By the time the current political cycle is over, the term "populist" will have become a buzzword so misused and abused that it will be leached of all real meaning. The dictionary definitions refer to the agrarian political party of the late 19th century, then segue into the use of the term that modern politicians have learned to embrace: "a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people."
But what those people might be trying to say is not always clear. The explanations for the current "populist rage" are almost as various as those legendary blind men feeling different parts of an elephant: big government, big banks, unemployment, and a health-care plan that went (choose one) too far, too fast, not far enough, not fast enough. In fact, the Senate election results in Massachusetts, in which a Republican seized the seat held by Ted Kennedy for almost half a century and threw the Democratic Party into a monumental tizzy, was a classic toss-the-bums-out event, neither specific nor illuminating.
So at the moment the problem in Washington is us, not them, or at least how they try to figure us out. Good luck with that. One poll of former Obama supporters who abandoned the Democrats in Massachusetts showed that 41 percent of those who opposed the health-care plan weren't sure exactly why. If elected officials are supposed to act based on the wisdom of ordinary people, they're going to need ordinary people to be wiser than that.
Social issues are easy: you're either for or against the death penalty, abortion, gay marriage. Economics are complex. Over and over again some Americans say they want lower taxes and smaller government. Yet somehow, in a recurrent bit of magical thinking, they also expect those things that taxes are used to pay for and that government delivers. The result is contradictory: vote down the school-board budget, then complain that Johnny can't read.
Another political buzzword, "productivity," has come to stand for the proposition that you can always do more with less. There's little evidence that that's accurate. And it's hard to believe that even the most zealous tea-party types would shrug philosophically if a bunch of kids died of E. coli because we hadn't hired enough food inspectors. The old dictum stands: you get what you pay for.
And, more important, you get what you won't pay for. There's no question that this is a moment in which the United States is poised for one future or another—the end of the American century or a new era of dominance based not on military might but on innovation. A global economy, a technological revolution, an ecosystem in crisis, radically changing demographics: these are matters that are inextricably linked and that require the long view. When Barack Obama ran on a platform of change, it was not a pledge to tinker day by day, but to transform over time. Chess, not pinball.
If his party's recent reversal of fortune has given the president a jolt that leads him to refocus on the suffering of ordinary people who have lost their jobs and homes, that would be a good thing. But if his administration and Congress expend their energy on knee-jerk reactions to perceived or imagined public sentiment, that will be terrible. Already there is talk of narrowing an all-too-narrow health-care bill. Already Obama is embracing some of those paint-by-numbers policies that politicians trot out when they're doing the populist polka: instituting spending freezes, raising the income ceilings for some tax benefits. Governing by inches.
The Democrats are in danger of learning the wrong lessons from their Massachusetts defeat. After all, they seem to have learned the wrong lessons from their electoral triumph just a little more than a year ago. They are the majority, and they should act like it—boldly, decisively. Let the Republicans filibuster, and be confident that the sight would irritate, then enrage, most of the American people. The president was given a mandate, and he should act like it—boldly, decisively. There is consensus building, and then there is trading away real progress in deference to people whose fondest wish is your own failure.
The campaign that was so tech-savvy needs to discount the most conspicuous change technology has brought to the political arena: the mindless thumbs-up, thumbs-down approach that makes elected officials Christians in a coliseum full of lions. On the blogs and talk TV, the margins are presented as mainstream: thus, the preposterous notion that the president was not born in the U.S.A. morphs into something that sounds far larger, more serious, and more credible called the birther movement. The voice of the people often seems like the voice of he who speaks loudest, and with the most vitriol. Like car horns blaring on a gridlocked street, those sounds should be ignored.
Sometimes the message we send to our politicians is that they should follow us, sometimes that they should lead us, and sometimes that they should try the gymnastic feat of doing both at the same time. Along the way we forget that most of the things that make America great—civil rights, the safety net, Social Security—were pushed through despite their unpopularity. Do we want reaction or vision, someone looking over his shoulder or into the future? Did we elect a change agent as president so that someday we could say, wow, he increased the income cap on the child-care credit?
It may be that finger-to-the-wind politics is so entrenched that the great, or the good, will always be held hostage. If the aftershocks of the Massachusetts election mean that we'll now see innovative plans to create jobs and help lift the financial load from working people, that's great. But if the people who lead us become ever more afraid of their own shadows, afraid to make plans, to take chances, to legislate for the future as well as the present, it will surely mean the slow death of American ingenuity and influence. We are in a transformative moment in history, when the acceptance of the status quo counts as cataclysmic failure. A very smart man once said, "Telling the American people what we think they want to hear instead of telling the American people what they need to hear just won't do." That man was Barack Obama, and that attitude is one reason he got elected. He should stick to that position, and the American people should embrace it.