Those non-populist Democrats

Jonathan Martin of Politico asks:

What the hell ever happened to populism in the Democratic Party?

It was never there in the first place, at least not since the DLC grabbed control of the party in the 1980s. Bill Clinton was no populist. Al Gore was no populist. John Kerry was no populist (though at least he wasn’t a DLCer). Barack Obama has never been a populist and has explicitly positioned himself as independent of such passions.

Martin’s piece was surely conceived as a vehicle for hippie punching, but it is quite accurate in its descriptions of how far away the Democratic Party is from anything resembling populism. On the contrary, Martin notes that, “It is virtually impossible to be a successful national Democrat without relying heavily on business interests, including the financial industry, for campaign funds.” Martin finds support for this from numerous elected officials, as well as President Obama in his book, “The Audacity of Hope.”

“When I decided to run for the Senate, I found myself spending time with people of means,” wrote the then-senator. “As a rule, they were smart, interesting people, expecting nothing more than a hearing of their opinions in exchange for their checks. But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class. I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the sense that I spent more time above the fray, outside the world of hardship of the people that I had entered public life to serve.”

Is there a fix to this? I think Howard Dean is right in terms of what it would take to move Democratic politicians who have become culturally and financially aligned with the 1% to reconsider populism.

The last Democrat to truly tap into mass anger — though about war, not economics — said the campaign finance system desperately needs fixing to rein in the power of business but fretted that only a crisis may prompt reform.

“It may even take another banking collapse before that gets fixed,” said Howard Dean, the 2004 presidential candidate and former Democratic National Committee chairman.

But Dean is wrong that the outcome of another financial collapse should be a restructuring of campaign finance laws. That’s putting the cart before the horse and is a functional non sequitor to the idea of another financial crisis. While another crisis would surely have been abetted by Wall Street lobbying and money in politics leading to relaxed regulation and law enforcement, the proximate response to such a crisis should be first focused on the financial crisis! Only after breaking up the Too Big To Fail banks and strictly re-regulating finance would campaign finance reform be possible.

Additionally, a return to populism won’t look like current elected officials like President Obama suddenly embracing the idea of holding their Wall Street pals accountable for doing unpleasant things like destroying the trillions in housing wealth. Instead a new crisis would have to usher in new politicians who fundamentally see value in holding financial elites accountable for their destructive behavior.

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