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December 28. 2013 1:00AM

Another View -- Clive Crook: Populism's problem is unpopularity

DEMOCRATS, presumably craving a respite from discussing health-care reform, are having one of their periodic fights over how liberal to be. With confidence in the government's competence and integrity at low ebb, many in the party believe that the time is right for a decisive shift to the left.

The progressive movement's conscience and leading intellectual, Paul Krugman, has congratulated President Barack Obama on finally getting it. In a recent speech, the President laid more stress than usual on inequality. "Go populism go," said Krugman, a professor at Princeton University and a columnist for the New York Times, speaking on behalf of the common man.

Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler, centrist Democrats at the Third Way research organization, disagree. They say the populism of Bill De Blasio (the mayor-elect of New York City) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (who has no intention, none, of running for President in 2016) is a dead end. "Nothing would be more disastrous for Democrats," Cowan and Kessler told readers of the Wall Street Journal.

Actually, some things would be more disastrous for Democrats - a few more months like the last two, for instance. Nonetheless, Cowan and Kessler are right that going full-populist is a bad idea. In modern politics, populists struggle to win elections. Why? Because they underestimate the people.

To be more exact, the difficulty lies with an excess of populism - which is what Krugman and others recommend for the Democrats and what the Tea Party wants to impose on Republicans. In healthy democracies, a diluted dose of populism is vital for any political project or party, liberal or conservative. Even technocrats have to get elected, and if they feel no empathy for ordinary voters, they had better fake some. But modern voters are offended by too much populism. As they should be, because it insults their intelligence.

Populism comes in different flavors but generally involves reducing politics to a struggle between a long-suffering virtuous majority (us) and an objectionable minority (them). There are many variants: the people against immigrants, against foreigners, against the idle poor, against intellectuals, against criminals. In the United States, liberal populism frames politics mainly as a struggle between working people and the rich. Conservative populism sees mainly a struggle between citizens yearning to be free and an overreaching federal government.

Neither of these views, by the way, is absurd. Democracies make choices about the distribution of income. The question of what the rich owe everybody else deserves an answer. How the rich got to be rich is another good question - was it through effort and enterprise, or through inheritance, market-rigging or mugging the taxpayer?

"Don't tread on me" is an equally intelligible sentiment. In the U.S., the federal government presumes a great deal, especially if you take the 10th Amendment seriously. And you don't need to be a constitutional originalist to be startled by the National Security Agency's notion of "reasonable search."

Restrained populism serves a valid purpose: It simplifies complex issues for voters' consideration, and puts the populist on the side of the majority. Obama's speech was far more restrained - that is, better - than Krugman's endorsement would lead you to expect. The them-and-us theme was in there, but Obama gave lifting up the disadvantaged far more attention than hammering the undeserving rich. The President's lack of stomach for an assault on plutocrats is why many progressives have found him so disappointing.

The true populist, in contrast, simplifies without mercy, and pledges to govern the same way. Strident populism deals in caricature, and most voters know it.

Inequality is the quintessential liberal-populist theme. The rise in U.S. inequality raises questions that need to be addressed. But the idea that reducing inequality alone is more important than reducing poverty, improving opportunity at the bottom and restoring growth in middle-class living standards is wrong. Worse (in political terms), it's implausible.

Krugman wrote that "inequality is rising so fast that over the past six years it has been as big a drag on ordinary American incomes as poor economic performance, even though those years include the worst economic slump since the 1930s." In saying that, he asks readers to believe that if the highest incomes had somehow been held down, other incomes would have risen faster - fast enough, in fact, to leave the total growth in incomes unchanged. Do they buy this stuff at Princeton?

True populists, liberal or conservative, simplify in another way. There's no such thing as a trade-off. There's never a need to balance justice and liberty, say, or fairness and efficiency. Once you understand the harm that the parasitic minority is inflicting on the virtuous majority, you have perfect clarity, the answer to everything and no excuse for vacillation. Tax the rich. Shut down the government.

As well as being divisive almost by definition, strident populism also tends to be angry. There's a place for that: Americans are right to be furious about the Democrats' health- care screw-up and the Republicans' government shutdown, about the impunity of reckless incompetent bankers and the fact that the mentally ill can buy guns. Even angry voters, though, are suspicious of angry leaders.

You can't have lively democratic politics without a dash of populism. But crass populism - the kind that blames the 1 percent for poverty or sees the federal government as an enemy - isn't what most voters want. They're smarter than that.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist.


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