Meacham: The Right Kind of American Populism

Economically populist causes and candidates have not had the best of runs in recent decades. Jerry Brown tried it in 1992, as did Ross Perot. Eight years later, in an echo of his father’s New Deal origins, Al Gore campaigned for president talking about the “people versus the powerful,” a theme John Edwards unsuccessfully appropriated in 2004 and 2008. If anything could have given new life to old-style populism, the financial meltdown of 2008–09 should have—but, remarkably, it did not.

At first, in the age of Jackson, American populism was about money; later, in the age of George Wallace and Richard Nixon, it became more about culture. It is admittedly difficult to draw precise lines between these things (money is inescapably a driver of culture, and power is a common denominator), but it is safe to think of economic and cultural populism as two different, if occasionally intersecting and overlapping, forces.

Safe, and useful, for the passage of financial-reform legislation in the House last week and a dispiriting report on jobs brought the curious history of populism to mind. Given the clinical economic and political facts of the hour, we should be living through a Jacksonian era of hostility to the rich and the well connected. Those whom Jackson called “the humble members of society—the farmers, mechanics, and laborers” ought to be generating substantial political pressure to exact reparations from, and impose severe new regulations on, the plutocratic few. Unemployment remains high; poverty too pervasive and intractable; the moneyed classes too skilled at the Washington game to make contests over economic justice even remotely fair fights.

And yet the pitchforks are being brandished not to encourage government to curb the excesses of the elite but to warn the citizenry that the government has turned into a socialistic threat to free enterprise.

Populism’s shift from economics to culture in America is as important a development in our politics as the rise of civil rights at home or the fall of the Soviet Union abroad. Without an effective progressive economic movement, questions about wealth and power become questions of degree, not kind. The status quo is accepted (that’s why it’s called the status quo), and even the ablest of modern Democratic politicians find themselves at work in an arena defined by those with an interest in limiting reform and thwarting revolutions.

It is a good moment, then, to try to marshal a kind of economic populism that is both principled and practical, a habit of mind and action that allows markets to thrive and neither unduly favors nor penalizes those who already have means. That, at least, was Jackson’s creed. Drawing on his understanding of a republicanism in which institutional interests—in the forms of a central bank, or an entrenched Congress, or an appointed federal establishment—could be corrupting agents in the life of the nation, he wanted to see that the concerns of the ill-organized many were protected against the exclusive privileges of the well-organized few.

For decades, whether the issue has been the tax code or financial regulation or, in the case of the Gulf of Mexico, the oversight of dangerous industrial practices, the initial American instinct has been to ask how little government can do, not what government should do. An economic populism for the second decade of the 21st century ought to create a sense of commonality in which all means, public and private, should be viable options. Government may not always be the solution, but sometimes it is. (Just ask the banks about that.)

There is an intriguing place where we might begin the work of a renewed economic populism: in corporations, not the capital. If the goal of populism is the amelioration of life for the many, then President Obama could strike a confounding (in a good way) pose by calling on the private sector to take up an idea put forward this week by Fareed Zakaria: unleash a corporate stimulus. “The Federal Reserve recently reported that America’s 500 largest nonfinancial companies have accumulated an astonishing $1.8 trillion of cash on their balance sheets,” Fareed writes. “By any calculation (for example, as a percentage of assets), this is higher than it has been in almost half a century. And yet, most corporations are not spending this money on new plants, equipment, or workers…[Such] investments would likely have greater effect and staying power than a government stimulus.”

A populism that begins in the boardroom—that would really be change we could believe in.