The Middle Class Squeeze: Can The Populist Elizabeth Warren Champion The Little Guy With Big Government?

Ralph Benko
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Posted: May 20, 2014 12:01 AM
The Middle Class Squeeze: Can The Populist Elizabeth Warren Champion The Little Guy With Big Government?

Who will prove the champion of the little guy and gal? Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) — on deck for her party’s presidential nomination should Hillary Rodham Clinton bow out — has become the political leader of choice for those who advocate Big Government as that champion.

This columnist is skeptical about Big Government improving the lives of the citizens. Yet … there is a case to be made for Warren. She is, at very least, a magnificently worthy adversary for advocates of limited government and deserves to be taken seriously.

America has had a decade of lousy job creation and wage stagnation … under both parties. Since President Nixon ended the Bretton Woods international gold-exchange standard, America has struggled through 40+ years of middle income households treading water and workers losing ground. Compounding wage stagnation, now, is a rising cost of living (masked by artifacts of the CPI algorithm yet nonetheless real).

In a recent poll conducted by the national polling firm QEV 41% of Ohio voters said that the greatest impact on them and their families is the rising cost of living. That’s more than the combined total of those who considered the lack of job opportunity (24%) or wages not going up (13%). These sentiments are consistent with other poll results and are representative of widespread sentiment.

Call it “the middle class squeeze.” As a result of the middle class squeeze, we natives are restless.

We little guys and gals really would welcome someone in the capital championing our interests. Who might that be?

Enter Elizabeth Warren, advocate of increasing the minimum wage, paycheck fairness, cutting student loan interest, and other proposals to address income inequality.

In the New York Review of Books, March 6, 2104, Michael Tomasky’s insightful column, A New Populism?, extolled Warren, Populist.

Tomasky:

Warren possesses a knack for earthy articulation of the liberal-populist worldview watched by no one else in American public life today. Videos of her speaking to supporters and donors, or decimating slow-witted cable hosts, go “viral” and get millions of views from liberals who’ve been desperate for years to hear a prominent Democrat talk the way she does.

Tomasky points out that Warren-style populism — championship of the interests of us little guys and gals — is beginning to sweep the left.

There exists these days, among Washington policy intellectuals and advocates who tilt toward the left end of the accepted political spectrum, a certain measured optimism.… that the Democratic Party, after years of, in the argot, “moving to the right,” is finally soft-shoeing its way leftward, away from economic centrism and toward a populism that the party as a whole has not embraced for years or even decades.

It isn’t just elected officials who are part of this change. It extends to the partisan liberal media as well. Most of the liberal websites and younger bloggers who have become influential in the capital, who are read avidly by their coevals who work as Capitol Hill and White House staffers, are highly sympathetic with the populist worldview.

Many of MSNBC’s most prominent hosts—Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz, Chris Hayes—are fiercely populist in their politics.…With Democratic offices on Capitol Hill, and TVs throughout the White House, tuned to MSNBC all day and into the night, this programming was bound to exert considerable influence.

Even the sinister former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, writing in his blog, republished at Salon, notes the emergence of populism both right and left:

More Americans than ever believe the economy is rigged in favor of Wall Street and big business and their enablers in Washington. We’re five years into a so-called recovery that’s been a bonanza for the rich but a bust for the middle class. “The game is rigged and the American people know that. They get it right down to their toes,” says Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Which is fueling a new populism on both the left and the right. While still far apart, neo-populists on both sides are bending toward one another and against the establishment.

Who made the following comments? (Hint: Not Warren, and not Bernie Sanders.)

A. “[W]e cannot be the party of fat cats, rich people, and Wall Street.”

Answer: U.S. Senator Rand Paul.

Populism — championship for the little guy and gal — used to have its home in the Grand Old Party. Now, Republicans reflexively are demanding tax cuts for corporations and for the rich. They forget that the famous Reagan Kemp-Roth marginal tax rate cuts were across-the-board. These were not targeted at the upper brackets. Only the cynical David Stockman thought them a “Trojan Horse to bring down top rate.”

Not Kemp.

Kemp, who famously called himself a “bleeding heart conservative,” was friendly to unions and passionate about creating opportunity for the economically marginalized, particularly Blacks. Populism at its finest.

Now the tone deaf GOP is MIA from this debate. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) reportedly has been lecturing the Republican caucus on the importance of taking the middle class squeeze seriously and addressing it credibly. Few of the pachyderms he herds have taken this good advice to heart.

Yet there is a potentially fatal internal contradiction in the “Big Government Populist” position. Princeton’s Wordnet defines populism as “the political doctrine that supports the rights and powers of the common people in their struggle with the privileged elite.” The federal government is the epitome of privileged elite.

Uncle Sam has astonishing privileges. He can raise his own credit limit whenever it is about to max out. Try that with your Mastercard. He borrows at 2% interest, our credit cards charge 20%. Uncle Sam has the privilege of printing his own spending money. If we little guys do that it’s called “counterfeiting.”

There’s more. Uncle Sam repeatedly has shown himself to be an enthusiastic courtesan to the rich and powerful, left and right.

And shilling for elite-privilege-run-riot really doesn’t square with populism. One of the most compelling current analyses of the vast influence of the Moneyed on the Powerful is the parable of Lesterland. This parable was coined by Harvard’s humanitarian populist Lawrence Lessig.

Lessig’s impassioned TED presentation about the disproportionate power of money on politics has received well over a million views. Lessig now follows up with a must-read book entitled Lesterland. Whether you end up agreeing or disagreeing with him it will be the best $1.99 you will spend this year.

Lessig passionately believes that optional public financing of federal elections would soften the influence of Big Money. Right or wrong, Lessig, a man of the left, is not here advocating Big Government. He makes a classic populist argument for attuning our elected officials with their constituents: us little guys and gals.

And yet. Disproportionate power of the rich and powerful has been a constant whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge. Moreover, there is something naïve, and for some proponents deceptively cynical, about some of the left’s “Eat the Rich” posturing. As Tomasky,sounding a little wistful, points out:

[P]opulists are kidding themselves if they think that all their investment goals can be met by taxing only the wealthy. Someday, perhaps, a Democratic president with a more amenable Congress will place before the voters the option of protecting Social Security by raising the payroll tax or raising the cap … and we’ll see if citizens embrace populism in practice.

Big Government progressives now aspiring to populism always end up shilling for bigger government. That doesn’t well accord with quintessential populism. Consider the soul of populism as stated by Republican Teddy Roosevelt in 1912:

Are the American people fit to govern themselves, to rule themselves, to control themselves? … I believe the majority of the plain people of the United States will, day in and day out, make fewer mistakes in governing themselves than any smaller class or body of men, no matter what their training, will make in trying to govern them.

Big Government inevitable means a “smaller class or body” governing us.

Big Government populism assumes a greater competence, and much greater integrity, on the part of Big Government than is in evidence. Yet the people understandably desire a champion. If the GOP remains out of touch with the voters’ concerns the promise of having even such a lummox as Uncle Sam for a champion will have voter appeal.

Will the GOP rediscover its populist DNA? Rand Paul nails it. The GOP “cannot be the party of fat cats, rich people, and Wall Street.”

The GOP, under Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Reagan was the champion of us little guys and gals. The Republican Party can do populism with far greater credibility than the Kingfishes of the left.

Will the GOP pivot to catch the rising populist tide? Credibly offering real solutions, such as good money, to the middle class squeeze is the path to relevance and victory.