ABOUT THIS time every election cycle, we receive stern lectures from The Wall Street Journal and kindred spirits warning that the prospective Democratic nominee is sounding alarmingly "populist." Front-runner John Kerry is following the pattern, and so are a lot of commentators. In his victory speech Tuesday night, Kerry declared, "I have a message for the influence peddlers, for the polluters, the HMOs, the big drug companies that get in the way, the big oil, and the special interests who now call the White House their home: We're coming. You're going."
Kerry, echoing his stump speech, went on to promise Americans "a prosperity where we will reduce the poverty of millions instead of constantly reducing taxes for millionaires. A prosperity where we create jobs here at home -- and where we shut down every tax loophole, every benefit, and every reward for any Benedict Arnold CEO or company that sends jobs and profits overseas."
Strong words. And sure enough, Journal columnist Alan Murray, reviewing Kerry's speeches, warned that such rhetoric risks creating a "rift between Democrats and corporate America" that would be "dangerous for both." Murray added that "big business still drives the American economy -- and Democrats risk regaining an `antigrowth' aura if they push this theme too far."
Murray fondly invoked the 1980s and 1990s, when "Democrats and big business declared a sort of truce," so-called New Democrats "eased up on anticorporate rhetoric and policies," and were rewarded with corporate contributions. Supposedly, populist rhetoric also alienates swing voters.
We've heard similar chidings from Joe Lieberman, who advertises himself as the pro-business Democrat, and from the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council, which gave us The Wall Street Democratic Party of the 1990s. Indeed, it isn't only Kerry who sounds like a pocketbook populist -- it's also Dean, Edwards, and Clark. (Lieberman, the antipopulist, got 9 percent of New Hampshire's vote.)
Next time you come across one of these homilies, keep in mind the following:
First, Democratic candidates find themselves sounding "populist" on economic issues because that's the message that rallies voters. Bill Clinton, the shrewdest Democrat in a generation, sounded very populist when he won the presidency. His 1992 campaign manifesto, "Putting People First," aligned Clinton with the pocketbook concerns of ordinary Americans. Clinton's accommodation to Wall Street came later.
Second, when Democrats win, it's usually because voters support them to redress the inequities between society's most powerful and the average American. Democrats lose when that message gets muddled. In 2000, Al Gore alternated between sounding populist and sounding confused. When he sounded populist, his support surged.
Third, Kerry's populist declarations ring especially true in the Bush era. Voters are vaguely aware that HMOs, drug companies, and oil companies have too much entree to the White House at the expense of ordinary people. It's good politics for a major candidate to validate those misgivings and pledge to remedy them.
Regular Americans have been intimated by 9/11, but they know this economy isn't serving them well.
Finally, it's no surprise that elite media and other business-affiliated institutions make clucking sounds whenever Democratic candidates champion ordinary people and call for regulation and taxation of society's most powerful. But it is distressing to hear other Democrats, or well-intentioned media commentators, accepting that bogus framing of the real issue. "Populist" is sly epithet because it evokes an ugly history. In the American past, the term has been variously used to describe racists, antiforeigners, and know-nothings. But economic populism, in modern usage, means a politics of advancing the well-being of working- and middle-class Americans using the leverage of government policies. If the rhetoric occasionally gets hot, Bush and his corporate allies have richly earned it.
There's nothing "antigrowth" about insisting on a progressive tax system or a public policy that balances drug company profits against the public's health. In the glory years of the post-World War II boom, well-to-do Americans lived nicely with higher tax rates, and corporations did just fine despite tougher regulation. That regulation saved capitalism from its own excesses. And Wall Street might have been spared the carnage of 2000-2001 if tougher financial, accounting, and securities regulations hadn't been gutted in the 1990s (with Lieberman cheering on the repeal).
Nor is there anything radical about wanting the public sector to fund public education, universal health coverage, and decent child care. Kerry and the other populists in the Democratic field should take these elite assaults as signs that America's most privileged are getting a little worried and wear them as badges of honor.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of the American Prospect.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.