Casting about for an explanation of the baffling resistance among Republicans in the House of Representatives to the $700-billion Wall Street bailout that every well-informed, sensible person in the country supported, The New York Times settled on populism. The Republican Party "is increasingly populist," reporter Jackie Calmes averred, and "populists do not favor bailouts of Wall Street."
Evidently that assessment was meant as a put-down, since Calmes described the House Republicans' recalcitrance as a "rigidly ideological stance at a time of economic crisis." Yet in mainstream American politics nowadays, populism is less an ideology than an attitude, a rhetorical style pitting regular people against powerful elites, and it can be adapted to diametrically opposed political causes.
While the anti-bailout movement did have a populist flavor, there were reasons to be wary of this massive economic intervention (including concerns about its cost, its fairness, its effectiveness and the precedent it sets) that went beyond antipathy toward Wall Street fat cats. Furthermore, supporters of the Treasury Department plan to buy up mortgage-backed securities also cast their position in populist terms.
At last week's vice-presidential debate, Republican nominee Sarah Palin, while paying lip service to "personal responsibility," said the "Joe Six Pack[s]" and "hockey moms" who took out mortgages they could not afford were "exploited and taken advantage of" by "predator lenders." She said "the corruption and the greed on Wall Street" created the "toxic mess" that the government must now clean up at taxpayers' expense -- not to help special interests but to protect "the Main Streeters like me" who would otherwise be hurt by tight credit resulting from the degraded assets of financial institutions.
Palin also tried to put a populist spin on John McCain's tax policies, saying the government should "lessen the tax burden on our families and get out of the way and let the private sector and our families grow and thrive and prosper." She thereby obscured a point emphasized by Joe Biden, her Democratic rival: The direct benefits of McCain's tax cuts would go overwhelmingly to rich people.
By the same token, Biden obscured an important reason for that: Rich people pay a lot more taxes to begin with. In 2005, according to the Tax Foundation, the top 1 percent of American earners received a fifth of total income but paid two-fifths of federal income taxes. In Biden's view, making that burden even more disproportionate is "simple fairness."
It will always be easier to make a populist case for taking from the rich and giving to the "middle class" than it is to make a populist case for letting the rich keep more of their own money. But other positions that traditionally have been seen as populist, including protectionism, farm subsidies and maintaining Social Security in its current form, can plausibly be portrayed as favoring special interests at the expense of a less affluent and less influential majority.
The relevant question is not whether a policy benefits an elite but whether the elite is thereby unjustly enriched. Whatever your political perspective, then, there are good and bad kinds of populism. But one variety we should all agree to oppose is the mindless, anti-intellectual populism to which Biden and Palin resorted during their debate.
If you want "a good barometer" for the economy's health, according to Palin, you shouldn't look at statistics or consult economists; you should "go to a kid's soccer game on Saturday, and turn to any parent there on the sideline and ask them, How are you feeling about the economy?'" If you want a detailed comparison of McCain's economic, educational, health care and foreign policies with those of the Bush administration, according to Biden, you shouldn't pick up a newspaper or do research online; you should "walk into Home Depot with me" and "ask anybody in there." This is the sort of populism that insults voters' intelligence while trying to flatter it.