There's recently been a backlash against populism, and for good reasons. Too many times populist movements are based on a simplistic class conflicts between the "small people" and the "elites", and, of course, there's no monolithic group of ordinary people and no monolithic group of elites. It could be the middle class against the rich, the poor against the rich, the un-degreed, regular Joe against the college educated Eggheads, the people against privileged politicians, the unions against the management, minority races against the majority race, etc. -- there are many forms of populism and each incident of populist complaints needs to taken on its merits and placed in perspective.
The Civil Rights movement was a form of populism and it was needed to create the necessary changes to fight racism. Union uprisings helped to uncover horrible working conditions. Politicians have historically taken advantage of populist issues and placed themselves as champions of the oppressed against the forces of power. The Democrat Party has been associated with populist anger for quite a long time, seen as the party for the common person, the advancement of minorities, for women's rights, for social programs for the poor, equal rights for gays, unions against greedy corporations.
Now, unions, minorities, women, poor people, anti-war activists, environmental activists and gays mostly vote for the Democrat Party -- these groups have allied to fight what they see as the Party of the rich and powerful -- the Republican Party. The idea that modern liberalism and The Democrat Party are the champions against abuse of power has been challenged. In the midst of all the political hullabaloo, some thinkers have calmly analyzed these assumptions and looked at the reality and the results, not from the perspective of individual policies which are designed to help one group or another, but from the perspective of government and the relationship between the State and the private sector.
A huge State machine has been created to provide welfare and regulations designed to instill justice and equality. Trillions have been spent to build this machine. Has it achieved its goals, and if so, at what costs? This is the question we have to decide, because another populist movement has developed which questions the size and power of the State and the usefulness of the government efforts. This group has been called the Tea Party, but since it's not really a party or even one organization, it's best to describe the populist movement as American citizens who want a return to limited government and much lower spending.
But the Democrat Party doesn't represent this populist movement. The movement claims to be angry at both parties, government in general, but the common associatiation is with the Republican Party. The media, in particular, finds it hard to believe this populist movement is apolitical and simply displeased with a too-powerful government. Because of this association with the Republican Party, and because the Democrats are presently in power, the general characterization of this populist movement has been that it's a backlash to the State's efforts, the Democrat Party's efforts, to advance minorities, unions, gays, women, environmental causes and so forth, all the Democrat Party causes and social programs aimed at justice and equality.
So, we have a unique populist movement which is not asking government for favors, but asking that goverment be limited, reduced in size and scope of power, and that spending be cut. However, these people protesting the size and power of government, many of them, are receiving, or will be receiving, government benefits in the form of unemployment benefits, Medicare or Social Security. One of the criticisms against this populist movement is that they aren't calling for their benefits to be cut, just a downsizing of all the spending they don't like. This is a legitimate criticism. This brings up an important question -- can a nation dependent on government services rebell against a too-powerful State? If it's successful, it's working against its own interests, and if it's only partally successful in reducing benefits for others but keeping the benefits that help them, then it's hypocritical and unjust.
You can't say that Medicare and SS have been paid for by contributions, because people are living longer and healthcare costs in old age are high, so the pay-outs are much higher than what's paid in -- it's welfare, pure and simple. This presents a quandary, a philosophical dilemma, but that aside, the question of the poor and needy still exists. Even if the SS and Medicare problem could be worked out and most people could retire without being a burden on others, what about the poor, those in need, the disabled? Is this populst movement saying they don't care about suffering, that government should cut it's cost even if it means more suffering for people who might be disadvantaged and incapable of helping themselves?
This kind of populist movement doesn't play well with liberals, the Democrat Party or the media, and you can understand why -- there are too many unanswered questions, and the populists look selfish, only worried about government debt, unconcerned with human suffering, inequality or injustice. Hell, it's almost un-American. This populist movement to limit government, re-estalish a free market and protect individual rights will have to answer these charges. If the Republican Party wants to represent this movement in governent, then the Republican Party will have to answer these charges. How is the welfare state turned around, reduced, and government power limited without causing widespread suffering? It's not that these questions haven't been addressed, or that the populists only care about cutting spending -- it's that the State will defend itself so vigorously that the populist movement will have to make this issue front and center. In order to beat down the size of the State, the private sector will have to make it crystal clear that there's a better way to address social concerns -- I don't mean specific plans to address each problem -- planning by a few is what gets us in trouble-- but the methods to address fundamental problems have to be clear.
I'll give some suggestions in the next few posts. I ain't to a'feared to offer ideas.