It's easy to see why politicians would be drawn to the populist pose. First, it makes everything so simple. The economic crisis was caused by a complex web of factors, including global imbalances caused by the rise of China. But with the populist narrative, you can just blame Goldman Sachs.
Politics, some believe, is the organization of hatreds. The people who try to divide society on the basis of ethnicity we call racists. The people who try to divide it on the basis of religion we call sectarians. The people who try to divide it on the basis of social class we call either populists or elitists.These two attitudes — populism and elitism — seem different, but they're really mirror images of one another. They both assume a country fundamentally divided. They both describe politics as a class struggle between the enlightened and the corrupt, the pure and the betrayers.Both attitudes will always be with us, but these days populism is in vogue. The Republicans have their populists. Sarah Palin has been known to divide the country between the real Americans and the cultural elites. And the Democrats have their populists. Since the defeat in Massachusetts, many Democrats have apparently decided that their party has to mimic the rhetoric of John Edwards's presidential campaign. They've taken to dividing the country into two supposedly separate groups — real Americans who live on Main Street and the insidious interests of Wall Street.
All people who criticize Wall Street are populists.All populists think of themselves as enlightened and pure, and are primarily interested in dividing society, the same way racists do.Therefore, all people who criticize Wall Street are primarily interested in dividing society, just like racists.
It's easy to see why politicians would be drawn to the populist pose. First, it makes everything so simple. The economic crisis was caused by a complex web of factors, including global imbalances caused by the rise of China. But with the populist narrative, you can just blame Goldman Sachs.Second, it absolves voters of responsibility for their problems. Over the past few years, many investment bankers behaved like idiots, but so did average Americans, racking up unprecedented levels of personal debt. With the populist narrative, you can accuse the former and absolve the latter.
ME: Well, Ike Turner was sort of a dick because he used to get high and punch his wife in the face all the time…BROOKS: But it's so easy to say that.ME: It's easy to say that a guy who punches his wife in the face is a jerk? (Scratching head) Well… I guess you're right about that. Would you like me to say it while juggling three chainsaws? Would you have less of a problem with it then?BROOKS: But by criticizing Ike Turner, you're absolving all the people who do other bad things. Like purse-snatchers in Central Park, and those kids who keyed my Lexus, and all those baseball players who took steroids! Rafael Palmeiro lied to congress! What about them?ME: Dude, are you okay? Your pupils look dilated.BROOKS: You're absolving Mark McGwire! The single-season home run record is a fraud!ME: (backing away slowly toward the door) Okay, yeah, sure. Listen, I'll catch up with you later, okay? I've got to return some videotapes.
So it's easy to see the seductiveness of populism. Nonetheless, it nearly always fails. The history of populism, going back to William Jennings Bryan, is generally a history of defeat.That's because voters aren't as stupid as the populists imagine. Voters are capable of holding two ideas in their heads at one time: First, that the rich and the powerful do rig the game in their own favor; and second, that simply bashing the rich and the powerful will still not solve the country's problems.Political populists never get that second point. They can't seem to grasp that a politics based on punishing the elites won't produce a better-educated work force, more investment, more innovation or any of the other things required for progress and growth.In fact, this country was built by anti-populists. It was built by people like Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln who rejected the idea that the national economy is fundamentally divided along class lines. They rejected the zero-sum mentality that is at the heart of populism, the belief that economics is a struggle over finite spoils. Instead, they believed in a united national economy — one interlocking system of labor, trade and investment.Hamilton championed capital markets and Lincoln championed banks, not because they loved traders and bankers. They did it because they knew a vibrant capitalist economy would maximize opportunity for poor boys like themselves. They were willing to tolerate the excesses of traders because they understood that no institution is more likely to channel opportunity to new groups and new people than vigorous financial markets.