I’ve often been critical of “outsider” candidates who claim that their lack of experience in politics and government is precisely what will enable them to succeed in politics and government. Business-people seem particularly prone to believe that they can bring solutions that no one has ever contemplated before, and now Carly Fiorina is showing that she has some truly innovative policy ideas, after hearing from a veteran having trouble navigating the VA health system:
“Listen to that story,” Fiorina said. “How long has [VA] been a problem? Decades. How long have politicians been talking about it? Decades.”
Fiorina said she would gather 10 or 12 veterans in a room, including the gentleman from the third row, and ask what they want. Fiorina would then vet this plan via telephone poll, asking Americans to “press one for yes on your smartphone, two for no.”
“You know how to solve these problems,” she said, “so I’m going to ask you.”
I guess it took someone with Fiorina’s business savvy to come up with the idea to address complex policy challenges with a focus group followed by an “American Idol”-style telephone vote. If only we had thought of that before.
Seriously, this episode tells us a lot about the state of Republican populism these days.
It’s obviously important to understand the experience veterans have with the system if you’re going to determine where its biggest problems are. But the inane idea that that would be all you need to solve the problems of an enormous agency that spends billions of dollars and has thousands of employees is characteristic of a particular kind of conservative populism, one that seems to be expanding now that Donald Trump has taken control of the entire presidential race.
Both parties are drawn to populist appeals, but they come in different variants. The Democratic version tends to be both performative and substantive — they’ll rail against the top one percent, but also offer policy ideas like upper-income tax increases and minimum wage hikes that are intended to serve the interests of regular people. Democratic populism says that the problem is largely about power: who has it, who doesn’t, and on whose behalf it’s wielded.
Republican populism, on the other hand, is aimed against “elites” that are decidedly not economic. It’s the egghead professors, the Hollywood liberals, the government bureaucrats whom they tell their voters to resent and despise. And part of that argument is that despite what those know-it-all experts would have you believe, all our problems have simple and easy solutions. All you need is “common sense” to know how we should reform our health care system, fix the VA, or control undocumented immigration. Understanding how government works isn’t just unnecessary, it’s actually a hindrance to getting things done.
There may be no candidate who has ever sung this tune with quite the verve Trump does, but he’s following in a long tradition. Ronald Reagan used to say, “there are no easy answers, but there are simple answers” — all it takes is the courage to embrace them. George W. Bush trusted his gut more than his head, and saw a world where there are only good guys and bad guys; once you know who’s who, the path forward is clear and only a wuss would worry about the unintended consequences that might arise from things like invading foreign countries.
In its somewhat less extreme version, this belief in the simple truths that only regular folks can see is what drives the common belief that whatever’s wrong in Washington can be solved by bringing in someone from outside Washington. So Ted Cruz proudly trumpets the fact that all of his colleagues in the Senate think he’s a jerk. And Scott Walker criticizes his own party’s congressional leaders, saying, “We were told if Republicans got the majority there’d be a bill on the president’s desk to repeal ObamaCare. It is August. Where is that bill? Where was that vote?”
Well, the answer is that there’s this thing called a filibuster, which Democrats used to stop that bill from getting to the president’s desk, where it would have been vetoed anyway (the real problem is that those leaders promised their constituents something they knew they could never deliver). But in this particular populist critique, the way institutions work is irrelevant, and a straight-talking, straight-shooting Washington outsider can come in and clean the whole place up wielding nothing more than the force of his will, some common sense, and good old fashioned American gumption.
The real mystery is why voters would fall for this kind of claptrap again and again. If the Obama years have taught us anything, it’s that policy problems are — guess what — complicated. Understanding policy doesn’t get you all the way to solutions — you need a set of values that guides you and creativity in imagining change, among other things — but you can’t do without that understanding, at a minimum. Yet a significant chunk of voters continues to believe that everything is simple and easy, no matter how many times reality tells them otherwise.
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line, The Washington Post, August 21, 2015
“Image Conflicting With His Actual Personality”: The Real Ted Cruz; Country Music, Harvard Law, And Tea Party ‘Populism’
Nobody who knows Ted Cruz — the Texas freshman senator who became the first official contestant for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination this week – doubts that he is very, very smart. That includes Cruz himself, whose emphatic confidence in his own superior intelligence has not always endeared him to colleagues and acquaintances (whose opinions of his personality are often profanely negative).
Yet while Cruz cleverly seeks to highlight the Tea Party persona that appeals to many Republican primary voters, he exposes the fraudulence of his ultra-right brand of “populism.”
Cruz announced his candidacy at Liberty University, a religious-right institution founded by the late Jerry Falwell. No doubt he chose the misnamed Liberty to underscore his commitment to the political attitudes – “anti-elitist” and often opposed to scientific and intellectual inquiry – that the late reverend represented. To Falwell, secular education and the Enlightenment tradition of free thought always seemed suspiciously irreligious; at Liberty, creationism is a required course, the Young Democrats are outlawed, and both students and faculty are rigorously censored.
What could someone like Ted Cruz, a vocal advocate of First Amendment rights, honestly think about a place like Liberty? Falwell’s school languishes far below the standards of educational achievement – including an undergraduate degree from Princeton and a Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School — that have always filled Cruz with pride. Sometimes with excessive pride, like when he reportedly told Harvard Law classmates that he intended to form a study group including only those who had attended Harvard, Yale, or Princeton as undergrads.
Josh Marshall, a journalist who attended college with Cruz, noted in Talking Points Memo that this bit of academic snobbery marked the future senator as a “pompous a**hole” at Harvard Law, “an amazing accomplishment since the competition there for that description is intense [his emphasis].”
In a further attempt to portray himself as a right-wing populist, Cruz now claims to be a country music fan – having changed preferences after 9/11, when he abandoned “classic rock” for country, which he suggested is more patriotic:
“My music tastes changed on 9/11. I actually intellectually find this very curious, but on 9/11, I didn’t like how rock music responded. And country music — collectively — the way they responded, it resonated with me. And I have to say just at a gut level, I had an emotional reaction that says, ‘These are my people. And ever since 2001, I listen to country music,” he told CBS News – without naming a single country artist or band.
Now every presidential candidate carefully cultivates a public personality by promoting and even adopting tastes that might resonate with desired constituencies. But there are few politicians whose image conflicts so sharply with his actual personality and real base of support.
Analyzing the Texan’s financial base as he entered the presidential arena, Bloomberg News revealed “surprising weakness when it comes to small donors.” Only 16 percent of Cruz donors gave less than $200, compared with 43 percent of the donors to his fellow Tea Party favorite Rand Paul. The funding that propelled him into the Senate came from groups like the billionaire-backed Club for Growth and the Washington-based Tea Party organizations underwritten by the Koch brothers with their oil billions. Having attended the same elite schools, the people writing those big checks must feel quite comfortable with Cruz.
Need anyone be reminded of the policies favored by such interests? They oppose raising the minimum wage, or even the existence of a minimum wage. They would gut Medicare, Social Security, and unemployment benefits, along with every other government program that supports the middle class. They would reduce their own taxes even more, while raising taxes on working families – all retrogressive ideas that even the average Republican rejects.
If that’s populism, Ted Cruz is truly a man of the people.
By: Joe Conason, Editor at Large, Featured Post, Editor’s Blog; The National Memo, March 27, 2015
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