Friday, September 24, 2010

"The Rightwing Upsurge in the U.S.: Less Than Meets the Eye? " by Mark Weisbrot

Thank Goodness. Weisbrot makes the very reasonable argument that, you know, the Left, can probably attract voters who would be attracted to the Tea Party by offering some economic populism. This is good. It doesn't do much good if folks derided as latte drinking elitists don't even bother to defend themselves by saying that they care about inequality and aren't on the side of the rich. The construct that the Right has built up about what the "liberal elites", meaning liberals in general, are like is tenuous in the extreme. But inequality has to be addressed for any of that to come crashing down, and folks on the Right are banking on the notion that folks on the liberal-left are too scared of being labeled Commies to engage in economic populism.

"But 55 percent of voters – a record for the past 20 years – say it is time to give a new person a chance to represent their district.

The conclusion is obvious: Voters are angry – not the anger of the rich who believe, as John D. Rockefeller famously said, that “God gave me my money.” It is a populist rage that will drive some independent or swing voters to vote against incumbents and the incumbent party. Even if it means voting for people who they don’t particularly like, trust, or agree with on the issues.

Republicans were able to keep this country moving to the right for nearly four decades – including through the Clinton years. For much of this time they used a fake populist appeal based on cultural issues, portraying a “liberal elite” who was contemptuous of the values of working-class white voters – who have generally been the biggest group of swing voters. The strategy succeeded because Democrats refused to make the obvious economic populist appeal to the real interests of these voters – who were getting hammered by the loss of manufacturing jobs, weakening of labor and redistribution of income that was engineered by the leadership of both parties. In 2004, non-college-educated whites with household income between $30,000-$50,000 voted for Republicans for Congress by a 60-38 percent margin; in 2006 a switch to a 50-50 split (22 percentage points) contributed significantly to the Democrats’ victory in Congress.

The Republicans’ long-term strategy collapsed in 2008. The Democrats were lucky in that the peak of the financial crisis hit just before the elections that year. In October 2008 the number of Americans believing that the country was on the wrong track hit an all-time record of 89 percent. Most importantly, this situation focused the attention of swing voters on the economy, something that negates the potential appeal of “distraction” issues such as abortion, gay marriage, guns or even the thinly-veiled racism that had been part of the Republicans’ appeal since President Nixon’s post-civil-rights-movement “southern strategy.” Obama himself had eschewed economic populism in his campaign (making an exception in Midwestern primaries such as Wisconsin, where he needed more working-class support in order to win), in keeping with his carefully cultivated media image of post-partisan conciliator. But the economy did the job for him, and for the Democratic Party.

What does this mean for the elections of 2010? I would predict that Democrats – even in some not-so-Democratic districts – who appeal to the massive populist discontent among the voters will do better than those who follow the conventional wisdom and run to the right of Obama on such issues as health care reform or taxes. This applies especially to the swing voters but could also be significant in rallying the party’s base, which is somewhat disillusioned and needs to be energized. Since this is a non-presidential-year election, voter turnout could easily swing the election."

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