Dear Democrats: Populism Will Not Save You.

The perils of the progressive plan to build an electoral majority by fighting inequality.

This illustration can only be used with the John Judis piece that originally ran in the 6/20/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.
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John B. Judis
June 19, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

A cen­tury of new rules — from the ad­vent of dir­ect pres­id­en­tial primar­ies, to the end of the seni­or­ity sys­tem in Con­gress, to con­ser­vat­ive Su­preme Court de­cisions on cam­paign fin­ance — has dra­mat­ic­ally eroded the power that of­fi­cial party struc­tures once ex­er­cised over politi­cians and their plat­forms. Today, an in­form­al net­work of donors, policy and polit­ic­al groups, me­dia out­lets, con­sult­ants, labor uni­ons, and star politi­cians de­term­ine in what broad dir­ec­tions both sides of the spec­trum will evolve over the long term. Many of these play­ers don’t ac­tu­ally identi­fy them­selves by party but rather by ideo­logy.

After the Demo­crats’ drub­bing in last Novem­ber’s elec­tion, the in­form­al net­work of lead­ers and in­sti­tu­tions that loosely guides the Left began the task of re­group­ing. The net­work has shif­ted polit­ic­ally from the days of Bill Clin­ton and the cent­rist Demo­crat­ic Lead­er­ship Coun­cil. Today, many groups look to Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren of Mas­sachu­setts and to New York May­or Bill de Bla­sio for in­spir­a­tion; the key think tanks are places like the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress in Wash­ing­ton and the smal­ler New York”“based Roosevelt In­sti­tute; and be­hind many of the or­gan­iz­a­tions is a net­work of mega-rich donors called the Demo­cracy Al­li­ance.

As these lib­er­al strategists took stock, most ac­know­ledged that the Demo­crat­ic side had genu­ine un­der­ly­ing prob­lems that needed to be fixed. And while the pre­scrip­tions they offered var­ied, one of the com­mon themes that gained mo­mentum was that the Demo­crat­ic Party needed to strongly identi­fy it­self with the fight against eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity. For many pro­gress­ives, the ar­gu­ment was not simply that end­ing eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity was the right thing to do; it was that a pop­u­list cam­paign built around this theme would mo­bil­ize what strategists call a “new Amer­ic­an ma­jor­ity” or a “rising Amer­ic­an elect­or­ate” — al­low­ing Demo­crats to take back the coun­try that they thought they had won in Novem­ber 2008.

(RE­LATED: Bernie Sanders and the Demo­crats’ Very Own Tea Party)

Can this ac­tu­ally work? I would like to think so; the goal of re­du­cing eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity is cer­tainly worth­while. And many of the policies that pro­gress­ives are pro­mot­ing un­der the um­brella of their de­vel­op­ing anti-in­equal­ity cru­sade — from rais­ing the min­im­um wage to re­quir­ing paid sick leave to strength­en­ing bank reg­u­la­tion to in­creas­ing spend­ing on sci­ence, edu­ca­tion, roads, and bridges — have mer­it. But after talk­ing to lead­ers of this net­work in re­cent weeks, and read­ing care­fully the pa­pers and es­says that pro­mote the new strategy, I have my doubts about wheth­er a polit­ic­al cam­paign built around these kinds of pro­pos­als will, in fact, cre­ate a new Demo­crat­ic ma­jor­ity.

THERE IS NO SINGLE group that dom­in­ates the Demo­crats’ in­form­al net­work, but the one that has the greatest reach, due to the power of its purse, is the Demo­cracy Al­li­ance. It was foun­ded in 2005 by Rob Stein, a ven­ture cap­it­al­ist who had worked for mas­ter polit­ic­al op­er­at­ive Ron Brown at the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee and the Com­merce De­part­ment. The his­tory of the Demo­cracy Al­li­ance says a lot about how the Demo­crats’ in­form­al lead­er­ship net­work has evolved over the last dec­ade.

Start­ing in the 1970s, ac­cord­ing to the pro­gress­ive nar­rat­ive, a sort of polit­ic­al dark age set in.

Stein had stud­ied the way con­ser­vat­ives con­struc­ted a power­ful polit­ic­al and in­tel­lec­tu­al in­fra­struc­ture with­in the Re­pub­lic­an Party. After George W. Bush de­feated John Kerry in Novem­ber 2004, he per­suaded fin­an­ci­er George Sor­os, Pro­gress­ive In­sur­ance CEO Peter Lewis, and oth­er wealthy donors to join forces in an or­gan­iz­a­tion that would build a pro­gress­ive in­fra­struc­ture to counter that of con­ser­vat­ives. “You can’t pro­mote ideas without an in­fra­struc­ture,” Stein told them. “Quit com­plain­ing about George Bush and Karl Rove. They’re not the prob­lem. We are.”

He re­cruited more than 75 in­di­vidu­al donors, and, with the back­ing of former Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tion­al Uni­on Pres­id­ent Andy Stern, also got a hand­ful of uni­ons and oth­er in­sti­tu­tions to sign on. The new group held its first meet­ing in April 2005. About a third of the donors were heirs and heir­esses and about half were 1960s lib­er­als; the rest were mod­er­ates, in­clud­ing a few Re­pub­lic­ans, whom Bush’s policies had ali­en­ated. Most of the act­ive busi­ness people came from fin­ance or high tech­no­logy — fields where they wouldn’t have had to cross swords with uni­ons or the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency.

(RE­LATED: Which Is the Bet­ter Pop­u­list Mes­sage: Class Mo­bil­ity or In­come In­equal­ity?)

The al­li­ance didn’t con­trib­ute money dir­ectly to pro­gress­ive groups; in­stead, based on care­ful screen­ing, it re­com­men­ded about 25 groups for its donors to fund. Us­ing this pro­cess, the donors would, over the next dec­ade, pump about $500 mil­lion in­to vari­ous lib­er­al or­gan­iz­a­tions. Al­li­ance funds turned former Clin­ton Chief of Staff John Podesta’s Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress from a small policy group in­to a com­pet­it­or with the con­ser­vat­ive Her­it­age Found­a­tion. They fun­ded Dav­id Brock’s Me­dia Mat­ters for Amer­ica and backed ven­tures like Ca­tal­ist and Amer­ica Votes, which were de­signed to help Demo­crats take polit­ic­al ad­vant­age of new di­git­al tech­no­lo­gies. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a Roosevelt Institute event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images) Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren speaks dur­ing a Roosevelt In­sti­tute event at the Na­tion­al Press Club in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. (An­drew Har­rer/Bloomberg via Getty Im­ages)Over the years, the al­li­ance has shif­ted left­ward. The Re­pub­lic­ans have de­par­ted, and the ranks of mod­er­ates have thinned; two mod­er­ate groups, Third Way and the New Demo­crat Net­work, were dropped from its in­vest­ment port­fo­lio. The al­li­ance’s changed out­look be­came abund­antly clear after the Novem­ber 2014 elec­tions. At a meet­ing the next month in Wash­ing­ton, the group’s mem­bers gave a rous­ing re­cep­tion to War­ren, whom some mem­bers urged to run for pres­id­ent. Then, at an April meet­ing in San Fran­cisco, it ad­op­ted a form­al strategy that placed it squarely with­in the cam­paign against eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity. 

The strategy was con­tained in a doc­u­ment titled “2020 Vis­ion Frame­work,” which made a num­ber of re­com­mend­a­tions. For one thing, it called for an in­crease in the al­li­ance’s ef­forts at the state level, where Re­pub­lic­ans have re­cently been ham­mer­ing Demo­crats. “In or­der to avoid a re­peat of the cur­rent dec­ade, and giv­en the stale­mate in Wash­ing­ton,” the doc­u­ment said, “we must fo­cus even more heav­ily on build­ing power in the states.” It also laid out three policy pri­or­it­ies that would guide the group’s fund­ing re­com­mend­a­tions: eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity, cam­paign-fin­ance re­form, and cli­mate change. Of these three, it was the first that ap­peared to be the most im­port­ant. “The cent­ral is­sue is the eco­nomy,” the group’s pres­id­ent, former Sor­os aide Gara LaMarche, told me.

While the al­li­ance con­tin­ued to re­com­mend fund­ing many of its older main­stays, such as the Cen­ter on Budget and Policy Pri­or­it­ies, it also in­cluded three or­gan­iz­a­tions — the Cen­ter for Pop­u­lar Demo­cracy, the Work­ing Fam­il­ies Party, and Na­tion­al People’s Ac­tion — that come out of the pop­u­list Left. It had re­com­men­ded fund­ing a few groups like this be­fore, but, taken to­geth­er, these groups sug­gest a left­ward turn. The Cen­ter for Pop­u­lar Demo­cracy is a fed­er­a­tion of groups that in­cludes some of the old chapters of the much-at­tacked com­munity-or­gan­iz­ing group ACORN. The Work­ing Fam­il­ies Party is a New York”“based ally of de Bla­sio that was foun­ded in 1998 and has af­fil­i­ates in six states and the Dis­trict of Columbia. And Na­tion­al People’s Ac­tion is a left-wing, Chica­go-based group that was star­ted by dis­ciples of Saul Al­in­sky and has af­fil­i­ates in 17 states. 

(RE­LATED: The Demo­crats’ Tea-Party Mo­ment)

The goal of the Work­ing Fam­il­ies Party, its ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or Dan Can­tor told me, is “win­ning Demo­crat­ic primar­ies with pop­u­list Demo­crats” and “run­ning pro­gress­ive Demo­crats against bad Demo­crats.” The ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al People’s Ac­tion, George Goehl, wants to pres­sure Demo­crats to take the is­sue of in­equal­ity ser­i­ously. The group, he ex­plains, “sees the Demo­crat­ic Party as an act­ive field of struggle.” A Work­ing Fam­il­ies af­fil­i­ate and Na­tion­al People’s Ac­tion both en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally backed Chuy Gar­cia’s pop­u­list chal­lenge to Chica­go May­or Rahm Emanuel earli­er this year. 

The Demo­cracy Al­li­ance’s out­reach to the Left re­flects, and has con­trib­uted to, a grow­ing con­ver­gence with­in the in­form­al net­work of groups that are try­ing to de­vel­op a strategy for the Demo­crat­ic Party. While there may be dif­fer­ences between the think tanks and the net­roots, as well as between those who proudly call them­selves “pop­u­lists” and those who prefer the terms “pro­gress­ive” or “lib­er­al,” there is, in­creas­ingly, a com­mon com­mit­ment to cre­ate what de Bla­sio has called “a grand pro­gress­ive co­ali­tion” that will achieve “a hol­ist­ic solu­tion to eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity.” There is also sur­pris­ing un­an­im­ity about what such an ef­fort means his­tor­ic­ally and about the kind of re­forms it should de­mand.

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JUST AS TEA-PARTY con­ser­vat­ives look back on the era of Amer­ica’s found­ing as their polit­ic­al mod­el, the new pro­gress­ives and pop­u­lists also have a his­tor­ic­al era that is their touch­stone: Frank­lin Roosevelt’s New Deal and its post­war af­ter­math. “Our eco­nomy was more bal­anced in the dec­ades pri­or to 1980 and func­tioned re­mark­ably well dur­ing the middle of the 20th cen­tury,” writes eco­nom­ist Joe Stiglitz in “Re­writ­ing the Rules,” a re­port the Demo­cracy Al­li­ance”“backed Roosevelt In­sti­tute pub­lished in May. Paul Krug­man calls these years “the golden age of eco­nom­ic equal­ity.” Those who look back fondly to this era praise the New Deal’s bank­ing rules, its sup­port for col­lect­ive bar­gain­ing, its pro­gress­ive tax struc­ture, and its use of gov­ern­ment spend­ing to boost em­ploy­ment and spur eco­nom­ic growth. “In the 1930s, poli­cy­makers stepped in and made new rules,” War­ren said at a din­ner on May 5 in Wash­ing­ton. “For half a cen­tury, those rules worked.”

Be­gin­ning in the 1970s, ac­cord­ing to this nar­rat­ive, a sort of polit­ic­al dark age set in, as the demo­crat­ic plur­al­ism and re­l­at­ive eco­nom­ic equal­ity cre­ated by the New Deal came un­der at­tack — first by busi­ness, then by con­ser­vat­ives al­lied with busi­ness. “Busi­ness in­terests mo­bil­ized,” Paul Starr writes in the lib­er­al Amer­ic­an Pro­spect, lead­ing to a “long de­cline of uni­ons” that “has prob­ably been the single most im­port­ant factor in the slide to­ward great­er in­equal­ity in power and eco­nom­ic re­wards.” When Ron­ald Re­agan took of­fice after the 1980 elec­tion, War­ren said, “Wash­ing­ton took fin­an­cial cops off the beat by slash­ing fund­ing of our reg­u­lat­ors, let­ting big banks load up on risk and tar­get fam­il­ies with dan­ger­ous cred­it cards and mort­gages. Wash­ing­ton also worked fe­ver­ishly to cut taxes for those at the top, open­ing huge loop­holes for big cor­por­a­tions and bil­lion­aires.” 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Social Security Act in 1935. (FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images) Getty Images

The pop­u­lists and pro­gress­ives ar­gue that this of­fens­ive of the last three dec­ades has evis­cer­ated the middle class. “Sup­ply-side eco­nom­ics hol­lowed out the middle class,” Dav­id Mad­land of the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress wrote in Salon. As a res­ult, they see an Amer­ica in­creas­ingly di­vided between the very rich and every­one else. In a May 12 speech in Wash­ing­ton in­tro­du­cing “Re­writ­ing the Rules,” War­ren asked, “What kind of in­come growth did the 90 per­cent get? Noth­ing. Zero. One hun­dred per­cent went to the top 10 per­cent.” In its “2020 Vis­ion Frame­work,” the Demo­cracy Al­li­ance writes, “For dec­ades our eco­nomy has pro­duced fall­ing in­comes and grow­ing eco­nom­ic in­sec­ur­ity for most Amer­ic­ans,” as well as “a down­ward spir­al of fall­ing wages.”

These pro­gress­ives aim to re­store the golden age: to re­turn to the New Deal ap­proach of reg­u­lat­ing fin­ance, tax­ing the rich, en­cour­aging uni­ons, and in­vest­ing in in­fra­struc­ture. Such meas­ures, they say, will re­duce in­equal­ity and pro­mote eco­nom­ic growth by provid­ing a needed boost in con­sumer de­mand. The pro­pos­als put forth by the Roosevelt In­sti­tute in “Re­writ­ing the Rules” and those in the plat­form of a re­cent “Pop­u­lism 2015” con­fer­ence — sponsored by US­Ac­tion, Na­tion­al People’s Ac­tion, and the Cam­paign for Amer­ica’s Fu­ture — were re­mark­ably con­sist­ent. The Roosevelt re­port called for high­er taxes on the 1 per­cent, a tax on fin­an­cial trans­ac­tions, the break­up of banks that were too large to fail, the ex­pan­sion of Medi­care in­to a uni­ver­sal pro­gram for all ages, labor-law re­form to aid uni­ons, the cre­ation of banks run by the postal sys­tem, paid sick leave, a $15 min­im­um wage, and “large in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment to stim­u­late growth.” 

A re­cent CAP re­port on “In­clus­ive Prosper­ity,” au­thored by former Obama eco­nom­ic ad­viser Lawrence Sum­mers and Brit­ish politi­cian Ed Balls, was less spe­cif­ic be­cause it was aimed at Europe as well as the United States, but its ap­proach was con­sist­ent with the oth­er pro­pos­als for re­du­cing in­equal­ity. Point­ing to the sim­il­ar­ity between Sum­mers’s CAP re­port and the re­port by Stiglitz — who had been crit­ic­al of Obama’s eco­nom­ic policies when Sum­mers headed the Na­tion­al Eco­nom­ic Coun­cil — LaMarche told me, “Every­body is now go­ing in one dir­ec­tion.” 

POLIT­IC­AL ACT­IV­ISTS AND aca­dem­ics of­ten ad­vance pro­pos­als that in their eyes would be­ne­fit hu­man­ity but have no chance of win­ning pub­lic ac­cept­ance or be­ing ac­ted upon. But many of the groups and in­di­vidu­als who make up the cur­rent pro­gress­ive in­fra­struc­ture be­lieve that, by con­duct­ing a broad cam­paign against in­equal­ity based on ag­gress­ive gov­ern­ment ac­tion, they are cre­at­ing a new pro­gress­ive ma­jor­ity. In a re­cent in­ter­view with The Na­tion, de Bla­sio sug­ges­ted that, on eco­nom­ic is­sues, the “un­der­stand­ing amongst the popu­lace is much more ad­vanced than among a lot of the polit­ic­al lead­er­ship.”

When I asked Fe­li­cia Wong, the pres­id­ent of the Roosevelt In­sti­tute, and LaMarche’s pre­de­cessor at the Demo­cracy Al­li­ance, how she ex­pec­ted the in­sti­tute’s ideas would fuel a new ma­jor­ity, she re­ferred me to the work of poll­ster Stan­ley Green­berg. In a re­cent is­sue of The Amer­ic­an Pro­spect, Green­berg de­scribes a “Rising Amer­ic­an Elect­or­ate” that is a “new ma­jor­ity” and that con­sists of “blacks, His­pan­ics and new im­mig­rants, mil­len­ni­als, un­mar­ried wo­men, and sec­u­lars.” The Demo­cracy Al­li­ance and the groups it funds use sim­il­ar lan­guage. In its “2020 Vis­ion,” the al­li­ance de­scribes the “Rising Amer­ic­an Elect­or­ate” as “voters of col­or, young people, and single wo­men.” Pop­u­lism 2015’s con­fer­ence plat­form re­ferred to a “new ma­jor­ity of people of col­or, young people and work­ing wo­men.”

Green­berg ar­gues that this Rising Amer­ic­an Elect­or­ate already ac­counts for a ma­jor­ity of the elect­or­ate and is grow­ing. “The Rising Amer­ic­an Elect­or­ate of Afric­an Amer­ic­ans, His­pan­ics, mil­len­ni­als, and un­mar­ried wo­men will con­sti­tute 54 per­cent of the elect­or­ate in 2016,” he writes. “If you also in­clude the sec­u­lars with no re­li­gious af­fil­i­ation, this rising share of the elect­or­ate will in­crease to 63 per­cent. Each of these groups is stead­ily grow­ing and, as of early 2015, nearly two-thirds of them in­tend to vote for Hil­lary Clin­ton, as­sum­ing she is the nom­in­ee.”

The way to reach these voters, Green­berg and oth­ers ar­gue, is with an agenda that tar­gets eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity. Green­berg writes that ad­voc­ates of “‘cent­rism’ could not be more wrong. The key to both win­ning today’s white work­ing-class voters and build­ing over­whelm­ing ma­jor­it­ies with the Rising Amer­ic­an Elect­or­ate is a ro­bust agenda of pro­gress­ive re­form and gov­ern­ment act­iv­ism.” Green­berg as­sures his read­ers that the “new Amer­ic­an ma­jor­ity … is call­ing for drastic im­prove­ments in wages and em­ploy­ment rights,” that Amer­ic­ans “are ready to tax the richest,” that they have “a spe­cial dis­dain for over­paid CEOs,” and that they “are ready to see deep in­vest­ments to re­build Amer­ic­an in­fra­struc­ture.” 

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BUT IS THIS RIGHT? Is a new ma­jor­ity in fact ready to sup­port a polit­ic­al agenda based on end­ing or re­du­cing eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity through gov­ern­ment act­iv­ism? There are cir­cum­stances like those of the early 1930s when a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans have backed pro­gress­ive eco­nom­ic re­form and gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion and even the kind of rad­ic­al re­forms en­vis­aged by the Roosevelt In­sti­tute — but are we in fact liv­ing in such a peri­od?

I fear that the new pop­u­list ap­proach is based on sev­er­al as­sump­tions — about the eco­nomy and the elect­or­ate — that are feed­ing false hopes of suc­cess. The first flaw has to do with the status of the middle class. The pop­u­lists as­sume that the rich are cur­rently get­ting rich­er and that every­one else is suf­fer­ing; that the middle class is van­ish­ing and that the in­come of the great ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans — 90 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to a CAP re­port — has stag­nated over the last 30 years. This sug­gests a polit­ics that could unite the bot­tom 90 per­cent against the very top. “The most im­port­ant polit­ic­al com­pet­i­tion over the next dec­ades will not be between the right and left, or between Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats,” writes Robert Reich in The Amer­ic­an Pro­spect. “It will be between a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans who have been los­ing ground, and an eco­nom­ic elite that re­fuses to re­cog­nize or re­spond to its grow­ing dis­tress.”

But this pic­ture of Amer­ic­an class struc­ture may be mis­taken. While in­comes and wealth at the very top have soared, and while people at the bot­tom of the eco­nom­ic lad­der — many of whom have only high school de­grees or less — are in­deed threatened with fall­ing in­comes and job­less­ness, middle Amer­ica is not dy­ing or dis­ap­pear­ing. Middle-class jobs in factor­ies are van­ish­ing, but there is reas­on to be­lieve they will be re­placed by white-col­lar work­ers in edu­ca­tion, health care, and all the vari­ous oc­cu­pa­tions that re­quire fa­mili­ar­ity with and use of com­puters. MIT eco­nom­ist Dav­id Autor, who pop­ular­ized the idea that tech­no­logy was hol­low­ing out the middle class, has changed his views. In a present­a­tion last sum­mer to the Kan­sas City Fed­er­al Re­serve, Autor por­trayed low-skilled, low-wage oc­cu­pa­tions as most sus­cept­ible to be­ing auto­mated out of ex­ist­ence, while say­ing that middle-skilled oc­cu­pa­tions in­volving “in­ter­per­son­al in­ter­ac­tion, flex­ib­il­ity, ad­apt­ab­il­ity, and prob­lem-solv­ing” are “likely to per­sist and, po­ten­tially, to grow.”

Middle-class in­come has also not stag­nated or fallen. Over the last three dec­ades, it has ris­en (al­though not nearly as fast as that of the top 1 per­cent). From 1979 to 2007, on the eve of the Great Re­ces­sion, me­di­an in­come rose 50 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to eco­nom­ist Steph­en Rose. Us­ing fig­ures from the Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice, Rose also found that in­come for the bot­tom 90 per­cent rose 42 per­cent dur­ing the same peri­od. Dur­ing the Great Re­ces­sion, from 2007 to 2011, the middle class — defined as the third in­come quin­tile — lost pretax in­come, but when post-tax and trans­fer pay­ments are in­cluded, its in­come did not de­cline at all and is now rising again. Rose’s views are con­tro­ver­sial, but in my ex­per­i­ence, they more ac­cur­ately re­flect the Amer­ica that I have seen while trav­el­ing as a journ­al­ist.  

Bids to fight in­equal­ity can pro­voke con­ser­vat­ive re­ac­tions among the vot­ing pub­lic.

The pop­u­lists pro­ject a view of the eco­nomy that looks like a mar­tini glass, with the very rich con­cen­trated at the top and a nar­row neck that ex­tends to a large base where most Amer­ic­ans are con­cen­trated. Some politi­cians have con­veyed this im­age as well. In the re­cent Chica­go may­or­al elec­tion, Gar­cia por­trayed Chica­go as “a city of the very rich and the very poor, with few­er and few­er people in between. We are be­com­ing a city of glit­ter­ing build­ings sur­roun­ded by crum­bling neigh­bor­hoods.” 

This is a por­tray­al that even a brief tour of the city’s neigh­bor­hoods would con­tra­dict. The real di­vi­sion in Chica­go — and, I would sus­pect, in oth­er cit­ies and states — is not so much between the very rich and every­one else, but between thriv­ing middle- and up­per-middle-class neigh­bor­hoods and those boarded-up neigh­bor­hoods in­hab­ited by the very poor. As Gar­cia and his pop­u­list fol­low­ers should have learned, this is not a class di­vi­sion that is con­du­cive to a pro­gress­ive pop­u­lism that seeks to unite the 90 per­cent against the very rich. In fact, out­side of a Demo­crat­ic town like Chica­go, it may be more con­du­cive to a right-wing pop­u­lism than a left-wing pop­u­lism.

To see why, it helps to un­der­stand the his­tory of both lib­er­al and con­ser­vat­ive pop­u­lism. Since the Civil War, there have two ma­jor left-wing pop­u­list move­ments against eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity. The first was the pop­u­list move­ment of the 1890s and the second was the re­dis­tri­bu­tion­ist move­ment of the early 1930s, typ­i­fied by Huey Long’s Share the Wealth move­ment. Both these pop­u­list epis­odes oc­curred dur­ing de­pres­sions and at a time when there was no safety net — no So­cial Se­cur­ity, un­em­ploy­ment com­pens­a­tion, Medi­care, or Medi­caid — to cush­ion the blow of massive un­em­ploy­ment. Dur­ing the 1930s, the middle class felt in danger, his­tor­i­an Alan Brinkley has writ­ten, “of be­ing plunged back in­to what they viewed as an abyss of power­less­ness and de­pend­ence. It was that fear that made the middle class, even more than those who were truly root­less and in­di­gent, a polit­ic­ally volat­ile group.” The res­ult was a left-wing pop­u­lism dir­ec­ted mainly against the wealthy and power­ful. 

But after the pas­sage of Medi­care and Medi­caid, as well as the ex­pan­sion of So­cial Se­cur­ity, the polit­ics of middle-class fear changed. Pro­tec­ted by gov­ern­ment so­cial pro­grams, the middle class didn’t have to worry for its sheer sur­viv­al dur­ing eco­nom­ic down­turns. In­stead, dur­ing down­turns, some middle-class voters be­came sus­cept­ible to fears that they would have to pay high­er taxes in or­der to aid those be­low them. As a res­ult, they em­braced a right-wing pop­u­lism that sought to rally the middle class against the lower class (of­ten iden­ti­fied by ra­cial or na­tion­al ori­gin) and also against the in­fam­ous lib­er­al elite, who were deemed to be al­lies of the lower class. This kind of pop­u­list polit­ics flour­ished dur­ing the tax re­volt of the late 1970s. And it once again found a re­cept­ive audi­ence dur­ing the re­ces­sion that began six years ago.

The tea party arose in the winter of 2009, in­spired by a CN­BC pun­dit’s com­plaints that the middle class was hav­ing to pay for the mort­gages that ir­re­spons­ible homeown­ers, who didn’t pos­sess the re­quired in­come, had signed. It is true, as lib­er­als of­ten point out, that the move­ment is fun­ded partly by the Koch broth­ers. But as any­one who in­ter­views loc­al con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ists dis­cov­ers, the tea party is a genu­ine grass­roots move­ment with chapters across the coun­try and nu­mer­ous fol­low­ers who see them­selves as ag­grieved mem­bers of the Amer­ic­an middle class. 

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks outside the Capitol on May 12, 2015. (Win McNamee/Getty Images) Getty Images

New York City May­or Bill de Bla­sio speaks out­side the Cap­it­ol on May 12, 2015. (Win Mc­Namee/Getty Im­ages)By con­trast, at­tempts to found a left-wing coun­ter­part to the tea party have fallen flat. The Cof­fee Party (with the omin­ous ini­tials CPUSA) nev­er really got off the ground. The Oc­cupy move­ment las­ted through the fall of 2011 and then fizzled. In New York, de Bla­sio was able to win of­fice us­ing pop­u­list ap­peals, but it re­mains to be seen wheth­er a polit­ics that suc­ceeded in one of the coun­try’s most lib­er­al cit­ies can be ap­plied in Mid­west­ern or South­ern swing states. In­deed, there is little sign na­tion­ally that a left-wing re­bel­lion against in­equal­ity is gain­ing act­ive con­verts in the way that the tea party gained sup­port­ers dur­ing the Great Re­ces­sion. The grass­roots groups the Demo­cracy Al­li­ance funds seem to have the most im­pact in Demo­crat­ic states or metro areas and of­ten are little known to the gen­er­al pub­lic. And the labor move­ment, which was once the main­stay of the Demo­crat­ic Party’s grass­roots and of a pro­gress­ive eco­nom­ic agenda, con­tin­ues to lose mem­bers.

In earli­er peri­ods, left-wing or pro­gress­ive ap­peals to re­duce eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity have even pro­voked con­ser­vat­ive re­sponses with­in the gen­er­al vot­ing pub­lic. After the 1984 elec­tion, in which Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate Wal­ter Mondale made an ap­peal to eco­nom­ic fair­ness cent­ral to his cam­paign, Green­berg ran fo­cus groups in Michigan’s Ma­comb County to dis­cov­er why these white work­ing-class voters had backed Re­agan rather than Mondale. Green­berg found that these voters un­der­stood ap­peals to fair­ness as ap­peals to use their tax money for gov­ern­ment pro­grams to aid minor­it­ies. Out­side of very blue areas, today’s pop­u­list ap­peals to re­duce eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity could well be un­der­stood in the same man­ner.

Rob Stein, who no longer dir­ects but con­tin­ues to ad­vise the Demo­cracy Al­li­ance, wor­ries about the ef­fect on voters of a cam­paign against eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity. “The fact of eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity is now fairly widely ac­cep­ted and res­on­ates with voters across the polit­ic­al spec­trum and throughout the coun­try. The chal­lenge for na­tion­al can­did­ates is to ad­dress the mul­ti­fa­ceted prob­lems of in­equal­ity without pro­pos­ing that the only solu­tions are sub­stan­tially great­er taxes, per­vas­ive reg­u­la­tion, and more in­trus­ive gov­ern­ment bur­eau­cracy,” Stein told me. (He em­phas­ized that he was speak­ing for him­self, not the Demo­cracy Al­li­ance or its part­ners.) “While eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity is gen­er­ally ac­cep­ted as a real and per­vas­ive prob­lem, sig­ni­fic­antly more in­trus­ive gov­ern­ment is not yet a pop­u­lar solu­tion among all con­stitu­en­cies in every re­gion. It may be one day, but we are not there yet.”

Those who con­tend that a cam­paign for eco­nom­ic equal­ity will pro­duce, or is already pro­du­cing, a new ma­jor­ity cite chan­ging demo­graph­ics as a corner­stone of their ar­gu­ment. “[I]ncreas­ing ra­cial di­versity, rising im­mig­ra­tion, grow­ing sec­u­lar­ism, evolving fam­ily struc­tures, and swell­ing met­ro­pol­it­an cen­ters … are tied to re­volu­tions in Amer­ica’s val­ues,” Green­berg writes. Trans­pos­ing an old Marx­ist ad­age to the new pop­u­lism, he pre­dicts that “[h]is­tory is on the side of the as­cend­ant re­volu­tions.” 

I’m not sure this con­fid­ence in demo­graph­ics is mer­ited. Ruy Teixeira and I pre­dicted in 2002 that a new Demo­crat­ic ma­jor­ity would emerge be­fore end of the dec­ade, and it did — but it has proved short-lived. One prob­lem with pre­dict­ing more last­ing ma­jor­it­ies based on demo­graph­ics is that op­pos­i­tion parties can ad­just. Re­pub­lic­an suc­cesses in 2014 were not just the res­ult of low turnout among young voters and minor­it­ies. They were also the res­ult of GOP can­did­ates mov­ing to the cen­ter to de­fuse cri­ti­cism from their Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ents. Col­or­ado Sen­ate can­did­ate Cory Gard­ner, Mary­land gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate Larry Hogan, and even Wis­con­sin Gov­ernor Scott Walk­er all took the edge off their stances on abor­tion and, in Gard­ner’s case, con­tra­cep­tion.

Moreover, it is dif­fi­cult to say how the grow­ing His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tion, upon which the cal­cu­la­tions of a new ma­jor­ity rely, will vote in the years to come. Like most oth­er eth­nic im­mig­rant groups, His­pan­ics tend to be­come less lib­er­al as they move up the lad­der in in­come and status. If Re­pub­lic­ans at some point mod­er­ate their views on im­mig­ra­tion, it’s en­tirely pos­sible that Lati­nos could be­come a less re­li­able Demo­crat­ic con­stitu­ency.

Chan­ging polit­ic­al cir­cum­stances also make it tough to pre­dict how the views of age groups will evolve. Mil­len­ni­als have backed Demo­crats, but their sup­port for Demo­crats in 2006 and 2008 was largely in re­ac­tion to George W. Bush’s ill-fated in­va­sion of Ir­aq, the on­set of the re­ces­sion, and the Re­pub­lic­an com­mit­ment to so­cial con­ser­vat­ism. It may not last. As a group, they are sus­cept­ible to Re­pub­lic­an ar­gu­ments against “big gov­ern­ment.” A re­cent, ex­tens­ive poll of 18- to 29-year-olds by Har­vard’s In­sti­tute of Polit­ics showed sup­port for cut­ting taxes, op­pos­i­tion to gov­ern­ment spend­ing, and dis­trust of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. If “gov­ern­ment act­iv­ism” is an es­sen­tial part of the new pro­gress­ive ma­jor­ity, as Green­berg sug­gests, then mil­len­ni­als may soon jump ship.

An Occupy Wall Street demonstrator displays a sign before marching on the Upper East Side neighborhood of New York. (Jin Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images) Bloomberg via Getty Images

An Oc­cupy Wall Street demon­strat­or dis­plays a sign be­fore march­ing on the Up­per East Side neigh­bor­hood of New York. (Jin Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Im­ages)SOME OF THE eco­nom­ic pro­pos­als that the pro­gress­ives and pop­u­lists fa­vor could use fur­ther elab­or­a­tion. Medi­care for all? As it stands, some doc­tors re­fuse to take Medi­care be­cause they think its re­im­burse­ment rates are too low, and those seni­ors who can af­ford to do so pur­chase “medigap” in­sur­ance. Ex­pand­ing the pro­gram could po­ten­tially cre­ate a very ex­pens­ive two-tier sys­tem of health in­sur­ance. Oth­er pro­pos­als seem a little daffy. Dur­ing the Chica­go may­or­al elec­tion, a Roosevelt In­sti­tute re­port re­com­men­ded slap­ping trans­ac­tion taxes on Chica­go’s stocks and com­mod­it­ies traders — a pro­pos­al that, if en­acted, could dam­age one of the city’s most im­port­ant in­dus­tries.

Still, most of the new pop­u­lists’ pro­pos­als are far from daffy. On the con­trary, they are worthy of ser­i­ous dis­cus­sion. The policies them­selves are not the prob­lem. The prob­lem is me­di­ation — how to me­di­ate between a com­mit­ment to achiev­ing equal­ity through gov­ern­ment ac­tion and the real­ity of Amer­ic­an polit­ics. How would an elect­or­ate — which has demon­strated over two cen­tur­ies (with the ex­cep­tions of FDR’s first term and the coun­try’s years at war) its dis­trust of fed­er­al eco­nom­ic in­ter­ven­tion — come around to sup­port­ing pro­pos­als that en­tail “gov­ern­ment act­iv­ism”? And how could a cam­paign against eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity be con­duc­ted in a way that didn’t sug­gest that a lib­er­al elite, in­su­lated from eco­nom­ic stress, was try­ing to get the middle class to fund pro­grams for the poor?

Demo­crats have faced this di­lemma be­fore: In the 1980s, the party es­poused prin­ciples and pro­grams that put it at odds with a ma­jor­ity of voters. Demo­crats wanted gov­ern­ment eco­nom­ic plan­ning and in­creased spend­ing on cit­ies; they favored rais­ing taxes; they em­braced the coun­ter­cul­ture and so­cial move­ments of the ‘60s at a time when those move­ments were not widely ac­cep­ted. To rem­edy this situ­ation, some mod­er­ate and lib­er­al Demo­crats got to­geth­er in 1985, after an­oth­er Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial land­slide, to form the Demo­crat­ic Lead­er­ship Coun­cil.

The DLC was, as its many de­tract­ors on the Left will cer­tainly re­mem­ber, far from per­fect. It can be faul­ted, for in­stance, for pres­sur­ing Demo­crats to re­con­cile them­selves with a con­ser­vat­ive eco­nom­ic and de­fense agenda. But it also played an im­port­ant me­di­at­ing role in get­ting Demo­crats to in­ocu­late them­selves against charges that they were at odds with the Amer­ic­an elect­or­ate. It ad­dressed the pub­lic’s fear that Demo­crats in­dis­crim­in­ately favored big gov­ern­ment by launch­ing a cam­paign to “re­in­vent gov­ern­ment.” It nul­li­fied charges that the Demo­crats favored the poor over the middle class by sup­port­ing wel­fare re­form. And it in­sisted that Demo­crats stress eco­nom­ic growth. As a res­ult, Bill Clin­ton could cam­paign and win in 1992 on a plat­form of “put­ting people first” that united much of the middle and lower rungs of the eco­nom­ic lad­der. Clin­ton, of course, promptly for­got what he had learned and ran afoul of the elect­or­ate in Novem­ber 1994; but after that, he mastered the art of polit­ic­al me­di­ation. 

Pro­gress­ives don’t have to aban­don their at­tempt to re­duce in­equal­ity or re­nounce the pro­grams that would ac­com­plish this. But rather than as­sum­ing that the elect­or­ate will be nat­ur­ally re­cept­ive to a brash pop­u­list mes­sage, they need to as­sume the op­pos­ite: that win­ning the de­bate on eco­nom­ic equal­ity will re­quire me­di­at­ing between one’s pre­ferred policies and a fun­da­ment­ally wary elect­or­ate.

Pro­gress­ives can’t as­sume that the elect­or­ate will be nat­ur­ally re­cept­ive to brash pop­u­lism.

Polit­ic­al con­sult­ants can do this for in­di­vidu­al can­did­ates. For in­stance, once the gen­er­al elec­tion be­gins, it would be sur­pris­ing if Podesta, who is in charge of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign, didn’t ad­vise her to fol­low the ex­ample of Bill Clin­ton in 1992 and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 by of­fer­ing a middle-class tax cut and per­haps, too, some tax in­cent­ives for busi­ness. That may not be great eco­nom­ics, but it’s es­sen­tial to over­com­ing voters’ qualms about gov­ern­ment. 

However, the donors who make up the Demo­cracy Al­li­ance and the groups they fund as­pire to more than win­ning the pres­id­ency in 2016. They want to put the party on a long-term path to re­tak­ing con­trol of state­houses and Con­gress. And the poli­cy­makers at the Roosevelt In­sti­tute or Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress don’t just fa­vor a min­im­um-wage boost, which, after all, was en­dorsed by con­ser­vat­ive Sen­ate can­did­ate Tom Cot­ton dur­ing his suc­cess­ful bid last fall to un­seat Arkan­sas’s Mark Pry­or. They want labor-law re­form, much tough­er bank reg­u­la­tions, a pro­gress­ive re­write of the tax code, and a raft of pub­lic ex­pendit­ures — all long-term pro­pos­i­tions. 

To get to that point, they will have to de­vel­op a soph­ist­ic­ated polit­ics, as the DLC did, to ac­com­pany their im­pas­sioned ad­vocacy of eco­nom­ic equal­ity as well as their views on cam­paign-fin­ance re­form and cli­mate change. The Demo­cracy Al­li­ance has played a use­ful role in get­ting fun­ders to move bey­ond their pet is­sues and causes, but in their strategy, they have largely rep­lic­ated the pre­vail­ing con­ven­tion­al wis­dom among the party’s pro­gress­ive and pop­u­list groups about how a new ma­jor­ity and a Rising Amer­ic­an Elect­or­ate will win power. 

Demo­crats are not alone in fa­cing these chal­lenges. The Re­pub­lic­an Party also in­cludes ele­ments that are at odds with much of the Amer­ic­an elect­or­ate. The tea party is power­ful with­in the GOP, but when tea-party fa­vor­ites have ous­ted more mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate can­did­ates, they have gen­er­ally lost elec­tions. Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates like Mitt Rom­ney who al­low them­selves to be iden­ti­fied too closely with the ideo­logy of the party’s 1 per­cen­t­ers can also risk de­feat. In oth­er words, Re­pub­lic­ans, like Demo­crats, have to find ways to me­di­ate between their ideals and polit­ic­al real­ity. And whichever party is able to do that stands a good chance of win­ning ma­jor­it­ies.

The Demo­cracy Al­li­ance and its al­lies have part of the Demo­crat­ic prob­lem right: The party needs to find a way to wrest con­trol of the states from a power­ful net­work of Re­pub­lic­an fun­ders and or­gan­iz­a­tions. But the al­li­ance and the groups it funds won’t suc­ceed at this am­bi­tious task, and they cer­tainly won’t cre­ate a new na­tion­wide ma­jor­ity, un­less they can shape their cam­paign for eco­nom­ic equal­ity so that voters — fear­ful of big gov­ern­ment, wor­ried about new taxes, skep­tic­al about pro­grams they think are in­ten­ded to aid someone else — are will­ing to sign on.


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