Washington was abuzz this week with talk about the new Democratic agenda, “A Better Deal,” which is suddenly dominating news coverage and captivating voters with a plan to remake the American economy, sending Republicans scrambling for a viable platform of their own in advance of the midterm elections.
No, not really. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention on the beach.
In reality, with Congress and the president out of town right now, Washington is deader than a Chick-fil-A on Sunday. Bored TV commentators would rather analyze every nuance of President Trump’s latest tweetstorm than spend a second debating trade policy.
And the agenda I mentioned, which Democrats began rolling out a few weeks ago in a series of choreographed events, has impressed pretty much no one.
The slogan, which apparently took months of focus-grouping to perfect, rather than the five seconds of idle thought while doing the laundry that you would think it required, evokes — yet again — memories of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, which remain powerful in exactly two places in America: nursing homes and Democratic leadership meetings.
Critics of the plan were quick to point out that it wasn’t really a plan at all — more like a collection of greatest hits like public infrastructure spending (1984), job retraining (1992) and monopoly busting (1896).
But the more profound and more overlooked problem with this “Better Deal” proclamation isn’t actually about its language or its gauziness. It’s more about the underlying philosophy, which misreads in some fundamental way the core appeal of Trump’s campaign.
Democrats are trying to do a couple of things with this new marketing push. One is to answer this question of what they actually want to achieve, aside from impeaching the president. In announcing the new slogan, Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, lamented that “too many Americans don’t know what we stand for” before boldly declaring: “Not after today.”
Because nothing redefines a party in the public mind like a slogan unveiled by congressional leaders at a podium. That’s always worked before.
The other and perhaps more urgent objective is to co-opt some of the populist fury that’s simmering right now in the Democratic base, before it overwhelms the party establishment in the same way that Trump toppled leading Republicans. Schumer and his compatriots are trying to convincingly adopt the ethos of the anti-corporate politicians who appeal most to their activists — namely Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
It’s worth taking a moment here to consider what being a populist party actually means in 2017.
Broadly speaking, populism is the practice of galvanizing the majority of the people against powerful and oppressive interests in the society. In the late 19th century and well into the 20th, populism necessarily translated into an assault on industrial-age business.
This made sense. The most powerful institutions in American life were ascendant corporations, which concentrated their collective energy on exploiting both workers and consumers for profit.
There was no central government to speak of back then, no balancing force on behalf of Americans who weren’t part of the industrial or financial elite. It took a series of populist leaders — most notably the two Roosevelts in the White House — to shatter the grip of corporate trusts and establish an essential counterbalance in the public sector.
Almost a century later, however, the meaning of populism is a little more complicated. Yes, a lot of Americans remain deeply suspicious of banks and multinational corporations, especially those that move manufacturing overseas. That’s a reliably strong current in our politics.
But we also depend on companies like Walmart and Target for affordable drugs, groceries and toys for our kids. The fastest-growing and most ubiquitous companies in America now aren’t in oil or steel; they’re Apple and Amazon and Google. You don’t sense a lot of populist outrage over next-day shipping.
Meanwhile, government bureaucracies have grown exponentially in both size and power. If you went out on the street anywhere in America and asked people what the most powerful institutions in American life are today, I’m betting almost everyone would name Washington in their top three. full article