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June 16, 2010

populism and "the government"

Today's most prominent populists depict the government as alien to "the people." They say the government is a threat that needs to be checked and hampered.

A different populist tradition says, "This is the people's government. We paid for it, we built it, and it should serve our needs better." The clearest recent national voice for that strain of populism was John Edwards, in the 2008 campaign, but the tradition goes back to William Jennings Bryan and before.

For my own part, I'd put the matter a little differently. It is our government: of the people, by the people, and for the people, in Lincoln's phrase. Even in its current form, it is generally for us. Anyone is entitled to criticize the way the federal apparatus is run, but more than 80 cents of your tax dollar goes to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, interest payments on the national debt, and defense. Those purposes are supported by vast majorities of Americans. The government is by us in the sense that we determine its priorities, in rough strokes--for good and ill. We want low taxes and high spending, and that's why we get a deficit. The accumulating debt is not only "ours" because we must pay it off; it is ours because we demanded policies that necessitated borrowing. Finally, the government is of the people because the individuals who run it and work for it belong to regular American society and culture. They may not be statistically representative of the whole population, but they are not all that far off.

Having acknowledged that the government is ours already--we own it, legally and morally, and must take responsibility for it--we can turn to the ways it is not of, for, and by the people. In broad strokes, it may come from us, but money influences its decisions far too strongly. There are no realistic pathways for many Americans to enter politics and public life. In the government, power is distributed in ways that make it difficult for the public to hold leaders accountable. (For example, the present administration should be able to determine economic policy so that the public can vote up or down in November; instead, abuse of the filibuster creates deadlock.) The public discussion is structured so that we can't deliberate about common interests and learn from one another, but instead fracture into interest groups whose aggregate demands are irrational. Finally, the government is not of us sufficiently because it does not tap people's energies, ideas, and values sufficiently to solve public problems.

That diagnosis leads to a positive program that seems much more worthy to be called "populism" than any simple diagnosis of the government as the enemy of the people.

June 16, 2010 5:43 PM | category: populism | Comments



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