The Rise of Liberal Populism

Something extremely unexpected is happening to the political landscape: the left is coming back to life. In Massachusetts, Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren is challenging Republican incumbent Scott Brown for the Senate seat he won in a special election last year. A video of Warren speaking at a small fundraiser has become a big hit. Hers were fighting words:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. NOBODY! You built a factory out there—good for you! But you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate—you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for… You built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea, God bless, keep a big hunk of it, but part of the underlying social contract [is that] you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Part of the reason the video went viral is that Warren is unapologetically liberal and intellectual. These traits come as a relief to Democrats hoping for a vigorous, committed articulation of their vision for a broader social contract to compete with the right’s admirably cogent focus on constitutional fidelity. The other explanation for Warren’s appeal is that, despite her Harvard pedigree, she’s a rhetorical populist. Her speech, clearly off the cuff, was delivered in someone’s living room, and her views, though intelligently expressed, were couched in the commonsensical language that consistently seems to elude Barack Obama. She is the rare type of candidate who will smartly and assertively argue the Democratic economic line in 2012.

Meanwhile, in New York, Chicago, and roughly 98 other cities across the country, people who are far less knowledgeable about political economy than Elizabeth Warren is but equally passionate in their concerns have been assembling for days on end to remind Americans that we’ve forgotten one of the culprits behind our current economic malaise: big business. The Wall Street protestors, as they’re being called, have lots of different individual concerns—environmental issues, health care, nuclear disarmament—and they aren’t always particularly good at expressing them clearly. But for all the disorganization, these protestors are not just angry young anarchists with a laundry list of grievances. They are not, as Fox News seems to think, reincarnations of the worst exhibitionist excesses of the 1960s or, as Ann Coulter bizarrely suggested, harbingers of incipient Jacobinism or fascism. There is a broad, pragmatic resonance to what most of these protestors are saying, which is that the perpetrators of the current recession have never been brought to justice, and the problems they caused haven’t been fixed. An indication of the depth of this resonance is that, in the past week, the protests have multiplied and their demographics have broadened: more union members and white-collar workers are joining the grungy 22-year-olds.

Thanks to figures like Warren and the protestors on Wall Street, the momentum within the Democratic Party has shifted from the White House to the political periphery. Actually, as if any more proof of the Obama administration’s waning relevance to liberalism is needed, a special report in the Washington Post this past week drove some extra nails into the coffin. In the report, journalist Scott Wilson, who has covered the White House since 2009, traced the president’s political strategy since the 2008 election. In Wilson’s telling, Obama viewed his task as changing the nation through presidential initiative rather than through mobilizing a long-term political coalition. Accordingly, he made few efforts to reach out to powerful Democratic (or potential Republican) allies, nor did he foster relations with his army of ardent 2008 supporters. At the same time, his focus on “post-partisan” dialogue diminished his ability to express the broader philosophical message, à la Elizabeth Warren, behind his initiatives. Obama, like his predecessor George W. Bush, conceives of meaningful transformation as a product of one heroic chief executive rather than coming from a collective of committed collaborators and supporters who need encouragement and occasional inspiration from the top. In what is possibly the article’s most damning and telling line, Wilson asks, “Where is everyone else in the running autobiography that is the Obama presidency?”

The main result of what now seems a deeply misplaced strategy is that the president is isolated, both from D.C. power brokers and from his disillusioned supporters on the ground. Now the Democratic base, fed up with its leader, is following the example of its Tea Party counterpart on the right and taking matters into its own hands. This shift has its own downsides, since not every passionate lefty projects measured and reasoned thought. But popular collective action should not be dismissed simply because it is extreme or ill-informed. Conscientious commentators who lament the rise of “radicals” and the lack of “rational, constructive” dialogue in our public arena need to be reminded that actual Democratic dialogue rarely conforms to reason and that long-term change (think Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan) has often been premised, initially, on extreme populist sentiment (think Huey Long and Barry Goldwater). In the current environment, there are Elizabeth Warrens out there who may be able to harness inchoate liberal anger into something more powerful and constructive in the long run.

Overall, what’s happening on the left is an echo of the more developed right-wing populist shift, and both trends are encouraging. Neither side has all the answers, by a long shot. But both have a common enemy: giant institutions lacking accountability to the people supporting them via taxpayer dollars. A pincer revolt against big, distant authority is not a bad way to start an election season; it is actually—hearkening back with the Tea Partiers to the nation’s founding period—quintessentially American.

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