In hopes of explaining the Democratic takeover of Congress last fall, many pundits looked for some common ingredient in the new members’ ideologies. What they found was economic populism. Take Democrats Jim Webb and Jon Tester, without whom the Senate would still be in Republican hands. Webb is a Virginian who served as Secretary of the Navy under Reagan. Tester is an organic farmer from Montana who lost three fingers in a meat grinder as a child.
Yet the two share strident rhetoric when it comes to class. On Meet the Press, Tester told Tim Russert, “There’s no more middle class; the working poor aren’t even being addressed. Those are the people who brought us here [to Congress], and they need to be empowered.” Webb decried the class divisions that are leading to a bifurcation of American society in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. He wrote, “It should be the first order of business for the new Congress to begin addressing these divisions and to work to bring true fairness back to economic life.”
The populist consensus extends beyond Senators Tester and Webb. In the House, Representatives as dissimilar as Keith Ellison, a Muslim from St. Paul, and Heath Shuler, a former NFL quarterback from North Carolina, are talking about economic justice. The idea of economic justice doesn’t simply boil down to a distrust of free trade. This economic populism recognizes that the United States is in a better position to reap the benefits of globalization than any other nation. The new economic populists simply want to ensure that more Americans are able to share in those opportunities. Thus, they are eager to tax the rich and to expand government services in health care, housing, and education.
So what does this resurgence in economic populism mean for the party and the country? One thing is clear: The Democrats will start sounding more like FDR than Bill Clinton. Look at the hoopla over health care. Who would have thought that Edwards, Obama, and Clinton would have already proposed universal health care plans? Each of them are decrying the health care crisis, and each is advocating massive restructuring of the current system. Why would presidential hopefuls come out in front of such a heated political issue like health care over a year before the Iowa caucuses?
It’s simple, really. There is an actual national crisis, and now with this newly accepted economic populism, there is a language to talk about it. As income increases by 1 percent, medical expenditures increase by 1.4 percent. In other words, our government’s obligations for health care are growing faster than the revenue base. When you throw in tax subsidies and public employee programs with Medicaid and Medicare, our government pays for two-thirds of our nation’s health care. That’s what many European countries are paying for their national systems.
The difference is they get universal coverage.
So what does it mean that we spend more of our GDP on health care than any other post-industrial nation? It means that we’re paying the costs of a national health care system without getting any of the benefits. Remember, the reason so many progressives are so strident in their support of a single-payer system is not simply because we could cover more of our citizens. The clout that would come with a single-payer system would also allow the government to ably negotiate lower prescription drug costs from the pharmaceutical cartel. Not to mention, we’d save $350 billion in administrative costs every year.
And this populist orientation is not the result of some political operative telling the Democratic National Committee, “Hey, people love it when we rail against the rich!” In the wake of the deindustrialization of the ’80s and ’90s, more and more Americans fear for their economic security. The stagnation of wages in the face of increased housing and health care costs is causing an aura of insecurity. This concern is particularly prominent in the Midwest, the home of the Rust Belt, where the disappearance of manufacturing jobs combined with the federal government’s reprehensible abandonment of cities have weakened the economic resilience of the region. It’s no coincidence that this same region is home to every sizeable swing state in the country save Florida.
Americans are worried about holding on to their jobs, raising their kids, and affording retirement in a 21st-century economy, and they want a party and a government that will allay their fears. Maybe the Democrats have finally realized that they are the ones to do it.