February 21, 2018

Word: What populism was really about

Dani Rodrick, NY Times - President Trump’s tough talk on trade and the tariffs he recently imposed on imported washing machines and solar panels, as well as the ones he threatened on foreign steel and aluminum, would seem straight out of the populist playbook. But in terms of targeting the real grievances of his popular base, they largely miss the mark.

The early history of American populism, culminating in the New Deal, suggests a more productive and less damaging kind of populism. When populism succeeds, it does so not by cosmetic gimmicks but by going after the roots of economic injustice directly.

At the 1896 Democratic National Convention, the 36-year-old former Nebraska congressman William Jennings Bryan delivered what became one of the most famous lines of American political oratory: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Bryan’s immediate target was the gold standard, an emblem of the globalization of his day, which he blamed for the economic difficulties of what he called the “toiling masses.” Bryan ran for president that year as the joint candidate of the Democratic Party and of the People’s Party, also known as the Populist Party.

Sam Smith, 2008 - There have only been two Democratic presidents over the past three-quarters of a century who have gotten significantly more than 50% of the vote: Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, each of whom received 61% in one election. While neither fit the definition of a populist, many of their programs - from FDR's minimum wage and social security to LBJ's war on poverty and education legislation - were part of a populist agenda.Since LBJ, the party has increasingly deserted its populist causes and been trapped between defeat and a tantalizing break-even division with the GOP.

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