/Democrats Are Reviving an Old Populist Tradition

Democrats Are Reviving an Old Populist Tradition

Elizabeth Warren is proposing a truly populist overhaul of federal trade policy functions.
Photo: Darron Cummings/AP/Shutterstock

One of the problems progressive Democrats have had for a long while is the inveterate American suspicion of and sometimes hostility toward government, and particularly the federal government. It’s not a phenomenon isolated in any one demographic group, region, or cultural persuasion. As the party of activist government, Democrats have often vacillated between opportunistic appropriation of selected conservative anti-government themes, emphasis on government functions that happen to be popular, and, well, changing the subject to go after institutions (e.g., Big Pharma or banks) that are at least as unpopular as Washington.

When Bill Clinton and Al Gore made “reinventing government” a major theme of their administration in the 1990s, it was a point of departure for Democrats that soon more or less evaporated, in part because they oversold the initiative and in part because it focused too narrowly on cost saving rather than improvement of public services. When the more virulent forms of anti-government activism like the tea party movement arose in the 21st century, progressives tended to defend government rather than trying to fix it. As social scientist Paul Light noted in 2015, the constituency for reinventing government faded thanks to this pincer movement, and along with it, any immediate incentive for progressives to embrace public-sector innovation. And as Yoni Appelbaum observed a few years earlier, Democrats were losing ground in the eternal fight over the shape and size of government:

The current progressive movement has … tended to promise better policies and improved implementation, while rallying to the defense of government from its critics. It insists that government should do better, but not that we need a better government. Whatever its intellectual merits, this approach has a fatal political flaw: most Americans number themselves among government’s critics. They don’t think government works terribly well, and they are disinclined to support politicians who do.

One of the side benefits of Democrats losing control of the federal government in 2016 was that it liberated them from the reflexive habit of defending Washington. Indeed, one of the hottest topics in progressive political discourse these days is the once-radical belief that our current institutional arrangements all but guarantee a conservative oligarchical control of the country for decades to come. Add in a huge Democratic presidential field and voters hungry for new ideas, and you have a prescription for a revival of interest in government reform.

As David Graham notes, the reform instinct awakens a very old Democratic tradition:

For decades, the party has tended to pledge to make the existing system work better, while Republicans have promised voters that they’ll radically change the system. Perhaps not coincidentally, that period has coincided with a right-wing ascendancy inside American politics.

It has not always been thus. During the Progressive period of the early 20th century, liberals rallied around a series of major systemic reforms. They pushed to break up trusts. They expanded the vote, and demanded recall elections and popular referenda. They passed the Seventeenth Amendment, mandating the direct election of senators by voters, rather than by state legislatures.

Democrats took up this mantle, from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. Republicans could still win presidential elections, but as with Dwight Eisenhower, they were often offering just a scaled-back version of Democratic big-government ideas. The GOP was supine.

Part of the new interest in government reform on the left comes from the very old fear that the public sector has been “captured” by wealthy interests, and needs refocusing as much as it needs expansion. That’s at the heart of the wonkiest of Elizabeth Warren’s wonky policy ideas, a proposal to reorganize federal trade policy functions. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen in this area since at least the Carter administration:

[A] new Department  —  the Department of Economic Development  —  will replace the Commerce Department, subsume other agencies like the Small Business Administration and the Patent and Trademark Office, and include research and development programs, worker training programs, and export and trade authorities like the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. The new Department will have a single goal: creating and defending good American jobs.

In this case, reform serves as the handmaiden of the populist goal of ridding the federal government of a pro-corporate structural bias that has been built right into our fragmented system. But it reflects a more general resurgence of interest in government reform among presidential aspirants, as Graham notes:

Many of them are proposing things that would require constitutional amendments, all the more notable since there hasn’t been a substantive amendment since 1971. To name just a few: O’Rourke wants term limits. As I wrote earlier this week, radical reforms to the Supreme Court, including court packing, have become central to party thinking, even for cautious candidates such as O’Rourke and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Obama achieved universal insurance coverage through the private-insurance system; several Democrats want to bulldoze it entirely with Medicare for All schemes. Senator Elizabeth Warren has been perhaps the most aggressive of the bunch, pushing everything from abolishing the filibuster to busting trusts to enshrining a right to vote.

Medicare for All is not only the largest and most revolutionary government reform idea kicking around left-of-center circles this year; it’s also one that cleanly illustrates the conflicting impulses progressives continue to have between reforming and simply expanding government. On the one hand, single-payer health care is a classic reform aimed at sweeping away the hodgepodge of public and private health-insurance services that has so ill-served Americans over the years, and creating a much simpler and fairer model that has been tested in many other countries. On the other hand, its proponents have chosen to brand it (somewhat misleadingly) as simply an expansion of an existing government program, albeit one that is relatively quite popular. Unsurprisingly, public support for this reform tends to shrink when conservatives and their health-industry allies pound it as a government takeover of health care that will reduce consumer choice and carry an enormous price tag: the standard anti-big-government theme that always strikes a chord with so many Americans.

In this as in so many other areas, Democrats would be wise to remember that a majority of voters don’t inherently trust government any more than they do big corporations. The political power of “populism” — in both its left- and right-wing expressions — derives from a perpetual national craving for leaders who will bend government to the popular will and force it to address genuine needs. This by no means requires hostility to public employees or any reluctance to expand government where it’s needed. But it does mean boldly taking issue with government as it exists. And perhaps we are seeing more of that from Democrats this year.