It’s become conventional wisdom among a certain segment of political pundits and conservative intellectuals — especially the so-called Reformicons — that the GOP has a plutocracy problem. Too many high-end tax cuts, too much indifference to the struggles of working-class voters, too many denunciations of the mooching ways of the American people — all of it adds up to a party that looks out of touch and overly beholden to the concerns of wealthy donors at the expense of everyone else.
Until recently, no one fixing to run for the White House in 2016 looked likely to do so as a populist. But that may have changed over this past weekend, when Mike Huckabee quit his television show on Fox News as a possible first step toward throwing his hat into the ring.
You’d think that the prospect of a Huckabee candidacy would cause the party’s populists to swoon. After all, Huckabee is a folksy Southern evangelical Christian, a bass-playing two-term governor, and an ordained Southern Baptist minister who won eight states (including Iowa) the last time he ran for president in 2008. And that was before he raised his profile with a nationally syndicated radio program and a TV show on the right’s premier cable channel.
And yet the Huckabee news this past Saturday produced the opposite of excitement. Mainstream conservatives mocked the prospect of his candidacy on Twitter, while reformers who’ve been pining for a populist have been muted.
The question is why.
And the answer, I think, is that on some level smart Republicans understand that populism is as much a problem for the party as plutocracy.
Yes, Mitt Romney’s tendency to toady to superrich donors and entrepreneurs — coming on the heels of George W. Bush’s high-end tax cuts — certainly saddled the GOP with a plutocratic image problem. But what about its tendency to flatter culturally alienated middle-class Americans by dismissing evolutionary biology, by mocking professors and “experts” of all kinds, and by pandering to the prejudices of a certain kind of ill-informed, reactionary religious believer?
The fact is that the Republican Party has long since become a bizarre only-in-America hybrid of fat cats and rednecks.
Deep down Republicans know that while a Huckabee candidacy might help address the image problems associated with the first half of that equation, he’d make those wrapped up with the second half far worse.
Consider some of Huckabee’s public statements in recent years:
Praising the work of a hack historian lionized by Know Nothing evangelicals, Huckabee declared in 2011, “I almost wish that…all Americans would be forced, at gunpoint, to listen to every David Barton message.” (Thank goodness for that “almost”!)
Responding to the Sandy Hook school massacre of 2012, Huckabee suggested that schools had become “place[s] of carnage” because “we have systematically removed God from our schools.”
Last winter, Huckabee stated in a speech (not unscripted remarks) that “if the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it.”
Huckabee’s latest book, slated to appear on Jan. 20, is titled God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy.
That, my friends, is what right-wing American populism sounds like in the second decade of the 21st century. It is the irritable mental gesture of a provincial (rural or exurban) white America that can’t tell the difference between cultural signaling and a cogent argument. And it treats the details of public policy as an afterthought or a matter of indifference.
Would-be Republican reformers can look for a better vehicle than Mike Huckabee for the populism they favor, but they’re unlikely to find one. Huckabee — or someone like him — is the only game in town.
The authentic reform of the GOP — its refashioning into a genuinely national party — requires more than the shedding of its plutocratic image. It also requires that the party’s leading lights give up on their impossible populist dreams.
By: Damon Linker, The Week, January 6, 2014
A while back I published an article titled “The Rich, the Right, and the Facts,” in which I described politically motivated efforts to deny the obvious — the sharp rise in U.S. inequality, especially at the very top of the income scale. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I found a lot of statistical malpractice in high places.
Nor will it surprise you to learn that nothing much has changed. Not only do the usual suspects continue to deny the obvious, but they keep rolling out the same discredited arguments: Inequality isn’t really rising; O.K., it’s rising, but it doesn’t matter because we have so much social mobility; anyway, it’s a good thing, and anyone who suggests that it’s a problem is a Marxist.
What may surprise you is the year in which I published that article: 1992.
Which brings me to the latest intellectual scuffle, set off by an article by Chris Giles, the economics editor of The Financial Times, attacking the credibility of Thomas Piketty’s best-selling “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” Mr. Giles claimed that Mr. Piketty’s work made “a series of errors that skew his findings,” and that there is in fact no clear evidence of rising concentration of wealth. And like just about everyone who has followed such controversies over the years, I thought, “Here we go again.”
Sure enough, the subsequent discussion has not gone well for Mr. Giles. The alleged errors were actually the kinds of data adjustments that are normal in any research that relies on a variety of sources. And the crucial assertion that there is no clear trend toward increased concentration of wealth rested on a known fallacy, an apples-to-oranges comparison that experts have long warned about — and that I identified in that 1992 article.
At the risk of giving too much information, here’s the issue. We have two sources of evidence on both income and wealth: surveys, in which people are asked about their finances, and tax data. Survey data, while useful for tracking the poor and the middle class, notoriously understate top incomes and wealth — loosely speaking, because it’s hard to interview enough billionaires. So studies of the 1 percent, the 0.1 percent, and so on rely mainly on tax data. The Financial Times critique, however, compared older estimates of wealth concentration based on tax data with more recent estimates based on surveys; this produced an automatic bias against finding an upward trend.
In short, this latest attempt to debunk the notion that we’ve become a vastly more unequal society has itself been debunked. And you should have expected that. There are so many independent indicators pointing to sharply rising inequality, from the soaring prices of high-end real estate to the booming markets for luxury goods, that any claim that inequality isn’t rising almost has to be based on faulty data analysis.
Yet inequality denial persists, for pretty much the same reasons that climate change denial persists: there are powerful groups with a strong interest in rejecting the facts, or at least creating a fog of doubt. Indeed, you can be sure that the claim “The Piketty numbers are all wrong” will be endlessly repeated even though that claim quickly collapsed under scrutiny.
By the way, I’m not accusing Mr. Giles of being a hired gun for the plutocracy, although there are some self-proclaimed experts who fit that description. And nobody’s work should be considered above criticism. But on politically charged issues, critics of the consensus need to be self-aware; they need to ask whether they’re really seeking intellectual honesty, or are effectively acting as concern trolls, professional debunkers of liberal pieties. (Strange to say, there are no trolls on the right debunking conservative pieties. Funny how that works.)
So here’s what you need to know: Yes, the concentration of both income and wealth in the hands of a few people has increased greatly over the past few decades. No, the people receiving that income and owning that wealth aren’t an ever-shifting group: People move fairly often from the bottom of the 1 percent to the top of the next percentile and vice versa, but both rags to riches and riches to rags stories are rare — inequality in average incomes over multiple years isn’t much less than inequality in a given year. No, taxes and benefits don’t greatly change the picture — in fact, since the 1970s big tax cuts at the top have caused after-tax inequality to rise faster than inequality before taxes.
This picture makes some people uncomfortable, because it plays into populist demands for higher taxes on the rich. But good ideas don’t need to be sold on false pretenses. If the argument against populism rests on bogus claims about inequality, you should consider the possibility that the populists are right.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, June 1, 2014
Fresh off his victory over Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell headed to the American Enterprise Institute Thursday to make himself over as a GOP populist. The party, as you’ve heard, has decided it needs “middle-class outreach” – since it’s given up on outreach to women, Latinos, African-Americans and the LGBT community – and thus some intellectuals and politicians have tried to craft “a middle class agenda.”
While the party should continue to stand for the free market and business interests, McConnell said, it had to face facts: “For most Americans whose daily concerns revolve around aging parents, long commutes, shrinking budgets and obscenely high tuition bills, these hymns to entrepreneurialism are as a practical matter largely irrelevant. And the audience for them is probably a lot smaller than we think.”
That, you’ll recall, was the takeaway from Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, where the plutocrat’s self-satisfied slogan “You built that!” was meant to mock Obama’s declaring that nobody builds a business entirely alone, but seemed to mock anyone who drew a paycheck, which is most of us.
But what is the tangible help McConnell and his friends are now offering to middle-class families? Very little, it turns out. McConnell had the audacity to present his union-busting National Right to Work Act as a pro-middle class reform, ignoring the way the labor movement actually built the middle class from the 1940s through the 1970s. Oh well.
The AEI event also included Sens. Mike Lee and Tim Scott, along with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and writers like Ross Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru and Reihan Salam, who contributed to a collection of essays on the new middle-class agenda called “Room to Grow.” They talked about helping single mothers, tackling student debt and ending corporate cronyism. But they offered very few ideas that would make a difference, and their good ideas are strangled by GOP orthodoxy. Lee wants to develop a package of tax cuts and credits for the middle class, for instance, but it adds $2.4 billion to the deficit so he hasn’t worked out his numbers.
The Utah Tea Party favorite also proposes to help the middle class while cracking down on the poor: Since he believes poverty programs create a “disincentive to work,” he wants to cut them and step up work requirements for those who do get help. “We don’t want people to have to make that kind of awful choice” between welfare and work, Lee told a reporter, so we’ll cut back welfare and make it harder to access. Bless his heart.
Ending corporate cronyism seems like a place the two parties might find common ground, but every time Democrats and a few Republicans put together a proposal for cutting the tax loopholes that make the tax code so unfair, conservatives squash it.
Still, let’s give the folks behind “Room to Grow” credit for trying, again, to buck the prevailing pro-plutocrat direction of their party. In the conservative Washington Free Beacon, Matthew Continetti praised the agenda, but offered a caveat. “I do not doubt for a moment that if the Republican Party adopted Room to Grow as its platform tomorrow, then both the GOP and the country would enjoy a better future,” he wrote. But he remembered a similar reception for Douthat and Salam’s widely praised “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save The American Dream,” and concluded the GOP “is no closer to embracing the ideas of Salam [and] Douthat…than it was when we celebrated the publication of ‘Grand New Party’ at the Watergate in 2008.”
Continetti deserves credit for explaining exactly why that is:
The outreach Republicans make to single women and to minorities inevitably repels the groups that give the party 48 percent of the popular vote—Christians and seniors and men. As has been made abundantly clear, 48 percent of the popular vote does not a presidential victory make. But 48 percent is not quite something to sniff at either. That number can always go down.
So if the GOP can craft an agenda that it can sell to Christian senior men, this middle-class thing is a go. Otherwise, it’s going to have to wait for people with the courage to sacrifice part of that 48 percent to get to 51 percent.
By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, May 23, 2014
As Republican obstruction keeps anything from moving in Washington (except, of course, the package of corporate tax dodges known as “extenders” that are likely to glide through with bipartisan support), populist movements and leaders are moving at the local and state level, from New York City to Seattle, Maine to Minnesota.
“Fate loves the fearless.” Quoting the fierce 19th-century abolitionist James Russell Lowell, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio summarized his first 100 days in office in a speech last week at New York’s historic Cooper Union. Embattled but unbowed, the mayor detailed what he’d been able to move of the populist agenda that he ran on.
De Blasio, no one’s fool, began with the good news on the nuts and bolts vital to running any city: Crime is down, pedestrian deaths are down, potholes are being filled faster and the winter’s record snowfalls got cleaned up.
He then announced success in gaining the most state funding in history for his pledge of universal pre-K. De Blasio’s previous call to pay for this by raising taxes on those making over $500,000 a year was sabotaged by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, a stalwart of the Wall Street wing of the party, but de Blasio still got much of the money he sought. Beyond this success, after-school programs are being made available to ever more students. The mayor announced a move away from high-stakes testing, with educators empowered to make more comprehensive assessments as to a child’s progress. Paid sick leave has been extended to half a million more New Yorkers. More affordable housing is being built, as the city made it a requirement for luxury developers.
Unfortunately for New Yorkers, Cuomo swatted away de Blasio’s effort to get authority to raise the city’s minimum wage. But across the country, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is championing a $15-an-hour minimum wage, with a commission set up to work out the details. Murray, considered a moderate in a city that just elected a socialist city councilperson, quotes Franklin Roosevelt on the need for “bold, persistent experimentation.” In addition to pay, he is pushing on public housing, renewable energy and universal pre-K.
San Francisco now has a minimum wage of $10.55, indexed to Bay Area inflation, and a working families tax credit to supplement the federal one. The city requires employers to provide paid sick leave, and has a Healthy San Francisco plan, that essentially offers universal health care with a public option to city residents.
And while Republicans refuse even to allow a vote on raising the minimum wage in Congress, Minnesota, Maryland and Connecticut have all recently passed minimum wage increases, with more states likely to follow.
Congress has blocked any major effort to capture a lead in the green industrial revolution, but cities are filling the gap. Seattle, blessed by plentiful dams, is carbon neutral. Portland gets half of its energy from renewable sources. Austin aims to be carbon neutral by 2020 and has devoted 10 percent of the city’s land to parks.
While national leaders continue to bolster the banks at the same time as they abandon underwater homeowners, in Richmond, Calif., a Green Party mayor is pushing to use eminent domain to take over underwater mortgages, refinance them at current value and allow families to keep their homes. The city has fined banks for not maintaining the homes that they’ve foreclosed on. Wall Street has retaliated, essentially boycotting the city’s last bond offering.
While efforts to shut down the offshore tax dodges used by multinationals have been blocked in Washington, Oregon just enacted a bill to tax the state’s share of profits stashed in 39 countries and territories; Maine’s state legislature just approved similar legislation and several other states are considering the same.
In his Cooper Union speech, De Blasio noted the “resistance from some powerful interests . . . people who have a stake in the status quo and don’t want to see these changes.” But he noted, “This administration is a product of movement politics. . . . A movement of people who share a vision . . . We believe we are at our best when everyone gets a shot at fulfilling their dreams.”
And the only vehicle for that is aggressive, progressive governance. De Blasio closed by quoting one of his heroes, Robert F. Kennedy, “Everything that makes our lives worthwhile — family, work, education, a place to raise one’s children and a place to rest one’s head — all this depends on the decisions of government. Therefore, our essential humanity can be protected and preserved only where government must answer — not just to the wealthy, not just to those of a particular religion or a particular race, but to all its people.”
The new populism is just beginning to form. In cities and states across the country, people are beginning to be heard and beginning to find leaders who will stand with them. And that offers some promise for the future.
By: Katrina vanden Heuvel, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, April 15, 2014