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Populism and Presidents

I recently described why the antiwar position is a loser in a primary or general election against Obama. Another argument that won’t work against him is the populist one, and to illustrate that the firebagging David O. Atkins writes fondly of Elizabeth Warren’s emergence in the Massachusetts Senate race:

Changing the system won’t come from dropping out and voting third party, nor will it come from blindly defending the Administration and hoping a Republican never holds the White House again in our lifetime. Changing the system will come from voting people like Elizabeth Warren into office all across the country, proving that they can win using this sort of rhetoric, and then holding them accountable to their campaign promises.

See, writers like myself are “blindly defending the administration” from hypercritics like Atkins, who prefers articulate populists like Warren to namby-pamby Wall Street sellouts like Obama. The president, Atkins might say, ought to call Wall Street bonuses shameful, criticize high executive compensation, talk about irresponsible and dishonest lenders, express outrage at taxpayer bailout money being used for corporate jets, etcetera, all of which Obama did. Or as David Weigel put it over at Slate this week:

In a town hall on March 18, a town hall on March 19, a press conference on March 24, and a town hall on March 26, he condemned … well, you get the idea. The point is, he thwacked de-regulation and Wall Street almost weekly in his first three months.


Obama basically gave the speeches progressives wanted him to give, but presidential speeches don’t matter like they used to.

No, they don’t. A defining complaint of firebaggery is that presidents (and Democrats in general) don’t talk like Elizabeth Warren, as if it mattered to them when they’re evidently not listening:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.

You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: 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 didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.

Now look, 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 you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

A perfect antidote to Randian producerism? Yes! It’s not any more populist, though, than the president’s talk of “another strain” to our national character besides militant individualism. Presidential speeches matter less than they used to, however. David Atkins, in the post linked above, thinks the Warren message will work on a broader scale — though not too broad:

Will there be places this message won’t win, and voters whose heartstrings it won’t touch? Yes, of course. Most of those places will be heavily rural or bastions of the Bible Belt and the Deep South. But those places were unwinnable and those people unreachable anyway without destroying everything the Democratic Party is supposed to stand for.

The amount of contortion necessary for Democrats to win in places Warren’s message won’t work means those places aren’t worth winning in the first place.

Gee, I’m so glad I live in a place that’s not worth winning. After all, Alabama isn’t really part of America; we’re “unreachable” here. All those Democrats fighting like hell in Montgomery earlier this year? Mere figments of my imagination, just like their pretty words about the need to tax out-of-state corporations and stick up for the common working family.

Atkins is an asshole, exactly the opposite of a populist. Indeed, that passage betrays the very elitism that gives Democrats a bad name. There is nothing about rural or Southern locations that makes their residents especially deaf to populist language. Furthermore, he’s off-base: the president will spend the next year touring the country to speak in populist terms. Somewhere between shaming Republicans over deficient bridges and reciting stories of working-class struggle, he will almost certainly share a stage with Warren.

Nor is this some late turn. It is the continuation of the strategy Obama has followed ever since the midterms: propose popular, bipartisan legislation, let Republicans make a choice, and then turn that choice against them:

If his Republican opponents are seen as fundamentally unreasonable ideologues, Obama may have more leeway than he otherwise would to behave “unreasonably” — especially if he is doing it in the name of a principle with which most Americans say they agree. Now when Republicans (or the press) bemoan Obama’s supposed unwillingness to reach across the aisle and compromise, he can reply, “I already tried that, over and over and over” — and there’s a chance voters will know what he means.

He’s already doing it, and I bet he’ll accomplish a lot more than all of David Atkins’ firebaggery.

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  • Anonymous

    Matt, fucking ATKINS is from Texas. He fucking got brainwashed by the Emos at UCLA. He is just the sort of shitbagger who passes the meme that all Southerners are bigoted, inbred racists living in Deliveranceland. In fact, Atkins told me that Southerners spit on EmoProgs.

    On a day when TOBY KEITH gave a full-on rant about the rich and corporations need to be hit and hit hard for taxes, I think the Democrats should use Keith’s voice in recouping those people whom Atkins’s hero Gary Hart threw to the GOP to be used and abused.

  • Anonymous

    I used to 100% buy into the notion that the South was basically a lost cause, and that the 50 State Dean Strategy would only win if you basically ran a moderate Republican as a Dem and gave Harry Reid a whipping simulator for his Nintendo Wii.

    And then along came Naheed Nenshi.

    Matt gushed a bit earlier today about Calgary’s transit planning. Naheed Nenshi is the mayor of Calgary, celebrating the end of his first term later this year. He is the first Muslim mayor of a major Canadian city, and before running for mayor, ran nonprofits, taught at college, and was educated at Harvard.

    Contrast this with Alberta, a province so conservative many of us still look at the answering machine and go “gotta be witchcraft,” and Calgary, a city where we all dress like cowboys for ten days of the year with the eyes of the world on us, and spend the other three hundred and fifty-five days of the year complaining about how the rest of Canada thinks we’re a bunch of hicks. (There’s no connection.) Nenshi was my pick for mayor and I resigned myself to the fact that there was no way in Hell he could win.

    He won.

    He leveraged social media, got young people out to the polls, and ran an issues-based campaign that was honest to who he was and what he believed. He liked the color purple so much that I think fully 10% of Calgary thought it was voting for Prince. In any other year I would have said no way. But in 2010, Nenshi’s time had come.

    Because of Nenshi, I now believe that the progressive message – not necessarily the Democrat message, but right now the Democrats are the only national party even mildly interested in it – can win just about anywhere. There are hundreds of other factors, and I’ll be the first to admit that Canadian politics and American politics do not go hand in hand, but at the right time and in the right place, a progressive can win, and since we’ll never know ahead of time what time or place that is, we should be willing to try it anywhere.

    So while I love Atkin’s writing at Hulabaloo, I think he’s wrong to write off half the country. In fact, saying that progressives can’t win in the South actually contradicts the notion of the bully pulpit, since what is the bully pulpit but an attempt to convince an audience of something they do not already believe?

    That said, I wish all of us in LeftyLand would hold hands and get along and sing campfire songs. My favorite campfire songs are “Fuck Rick Perry Forever,” “Michele Bachmann is a Turtle-Necked Abomination in the Eyes of the Lord,” and “You’ll Never Guess What ‘Santorum’ Means.” If we’re gonna hang, I’d rather we all hung together.