Pick your populism
November 3, 2010
The Teaparty-backed candidates who were elected to Washington and state houses yesterday will stamp their true believers’ brand of conservatism on legislation for the next two to six years. Yes, the movement was originally organized by Republican operatives, but it is a legitimate, significant populist movement. It is also an anti-populist movement.
Populism comes in different flavors. What participants share in common is a revolt by ordinary citizens against government practices that fail to address problems. Populists also share an innate dislike of something big; some oppose big government; others oppose big business. In any case, they feel powerless and seek power by banding together in spirit or in organizations.
Growing up in Eastern Oklahoma in the 1950s, a common lament I heard was, “We send these representatives to Washington and they come back prairie populists,” meaning that their down home folks came back home advocating Social Security, old age pensions, and other kinds of social programs that had appeal to Dust Bowl surviving farmers, struggling poor townspeople, and blacks. However, opposition to Obamacare excepted, that kind of anti-prairie populism has lost some steam thanks to welfare reform and greater acceptance of the services provided. That same generation gets apoplexy at proposals that would “take my Social Security/Medicare away from me.”
Another kind of populism is tax protesting. It is more than the wish that “I do not want to pay more taxes.” It is about action to convert that simple desire to pay less taxes into public policy regardless of collateral damage to others. Concern about the size of the federal debt is fueled by fear that taxes will increase to cover the hole. Those who simply want to pay less taxes were behind Amendments 60, 61 and Prop 101 in Colorado that would have decimated public education and infrastructure improvements.
Teapartiers are tax protesters’ fellow travelers with some twists. This version also not only wants to pay less taxes but also to reduce the size of government even if it hurts others. Unlike the movements of the ’60s and ’70s that focused anger at big corporations, Teapartiers see big federal government as the enemy.
The populists of the ’60s and ’70s had a view that differs from Teapartiers regarding the role of government. Those past generations demanded that government protect the environment and consumers. Obamacare and Wall Street reform are direct legislative descendants of a consumer-oriented Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
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The Teaparty movement wants to scrap Wall Street reform. In the name of small government, they are opposing consumer protections in the reform legislation that addresses some of the causes of the economic collapse. Reform provides a way to avoid future bailouts and ends unfair lending practices that led to the credit bubble that threw so many into bankruptcy and foreclosure. If newly elected Teapartiers are successful in destroying reform’s Consumer Protection Agency, headed by watchdog Elizabeth Warren, consumers will be again at the mercy of big banks and big financial institutions. Sometime in the future, we could repeat the crash of 2008.
One of the Teaparty’s missions is to repeal Obamacare. Guess they want consumers to continue to dance to the tune of health insurers who already unfairly dictate if or what kind of medical care they receive and charge customers more than they can afford. They plan to leave 30 million consumers who cannot afford health insurance to risk economic disaster as they seek care in the ER, passing their super-sized costs on to the rest who are insured.
These next couple of years will see a battle between less taxes, smaller government populists and consumer populism. I will be rooting for the consumer brand to win; we need those protections from the practices of big health insurers and Wall Street more than ever.