Anti-people populism

A quotation on my high school U.S. history class wall read, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” (Britannica believes the quotation is an abbreviation of H.L. Mencken’s actual statement, “No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”)

Back in my innocent youth, I was offended by the statement. “Americans aren’t that dumb,” I thought, hopefully… and foolishly.

Well, 45 million Americans don’t wear seat belts. That’s 45 million stupid Americans right there.

But the real reason to embrace Mencken’s low opinion of ordinary Americans is how easily manipulated so many Americans are by right-wing scam artists who bamboozle with lies. The right today has no strong arguments to make (except to multi-millionaires, Wall Street and oil companies). So their Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys fall back on emotional rhetoric that panders to under-educated people who can’t grasp their own self-interest and make the correct binary choice about which major party better (or less poorly) represents their interests. Every few years, Republican operatives play a shell game in which they keep dumb Americans' eyes focused on the shell (“family values”) without the ball. After the election, they reveal the shell (corporate welfare and tax cuts for the richest 2%) where the ball really was.

Paul Krugman argues, correctly, that the way to beat these shysters is not by watering down legislation and begging Republicans to sing a bipartisan kumbaya but by denouncing and exposing their bogus claims and the real — and hugely unpopular — beneficiaries of Republican (and “centrist” conservative Democratic) policies:

[G]rass-roots anger is being channeled and exploited by corporate interests, which will be the big winners if the G.O.P. does well in November.

If this sounds familiar, it should: it’s the same formula the right has been using for a generation. Use identity politics to whip up the base; then, when the election is over, give priority to the concerns of your corporate donors. Run as the candidate of “real Americans,” not those soft-on-terror East coast liberals; then, once you’ve won, declare that you have a mandate to privatize Social Security….

But won’t the grass-roots rebel at being used? Don’t count on it. Last week Rand Paul, the Tea Party darling who is now the Republican nominee for senator from Kentucky, declared that the president’s criticism of BP over the disastrous oil spill in the gulf is “un-American,” that “sometimes accidents happen.” The mood on the right may be populist, but it’s a kind of populism that’s remarkably sympathetic to big corporations.

So where does that leave the president and his party? Mr. Obama wanted to transcend partisanship. Instead, however, he finds himself very much in the position Franklin Roosevelt described in a famous 1936 speech, struggling with “the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.”

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Roosevelt turned corporate opposition into a badge of honor: “I welcome their hatred,” he declared. It’s time for President Obama to find his inner F.D.R., and do the same.

Posted by James on Monday, May 24, 2010