Love him or hate him, you have to admit that Michael Lind is one of the most interesting political writers around. Of course, this may be my opinion because he has a good command of the last 200 years of American history and he isn’t afraid to use it in making his political arguments. I’ve been a fan of his work ever since Up From Conservativism (1996), in which he argued that the Republican party’s marriage of convenience between Wall Street bankers and right-wing cultural warriors would guarantee its marginalization and its ultimate defeat.
This is why Dems would do well to listen to what Lind has to say in “Can Populism Be Liberal?” in which he wonders, “[i]s a Jackson revival under way? . . Jacksonian populism spells producerism. For generations, Jacksonian populists have believed that the hardworking majority of small producers is threatened from above and below by two classes of drones: unproductive capitalists and unproductive paupers.” He notes further that “[r]eform movements have succeeded in the United States only when their programs resonated with populist and producerist values. Lincoln’s antislavery Republicans succeeded where the earlier Whigs had failed because the Republicans persuaded Jacksonian farmers that snobbish, parasitic Southern Democratic slave owners were a greater threat to white farmers and white workers in the Midwest than rich Republican bankers and industrialists in the Northeast.” Are any Democrats paying attention, in these years of economic uncertainty, rising populist anger, and anti-incumbency in the electorate?
Here, one might think, would be an opening for the center-left. And yet the Obama Democrats, unlike the Roosevelt Democrats, cannot take advantage of the popular backlash against Wall Street. Why?
One reason is that the attempt of the “New Democrats” like Clinton, Al Gore and Obama to win Wall Street campaign donations has been all too successful. As Clinton’s Treasury secretary, Robert Rubin helped complete the conversion of the Democrats from a party of unions and populists into a party of financial elites and college-educated professionals. Subsequently Obama raised more money from Wall Street than his Democratic primary rivals and John McCain. On becoming president, he turned over economic policymaking to Rubin’s protégé Larry Summers and others like Timothy Geithner from the Wall Street Democratic network.
The financial industry is now to the Obama Democrats what the AFL-CIO was to the Roosevelt-to-Johnson Democrats. It is touching to watch progressives lament that “their” president has the wrong advisors. “We trust the czar, we simply dislike his ministers.” Obama owed his meteoric rise from obscurity to the presidency not to any bold progressive ideas — he didn’t have any — but rather to a combination of his appealing life story with the big money that allowed him to abandon campaign finance limits. According to one Obama supporter I know, the Obama campaign pressured its Wall Street donors to make their contributions in the form of many small checks, in order to create the illusion that the campaign was more dependent on small contributors than it was in fact. Even now President Obama continues to raise money on Wall Street, while his administration says no to every progressive proposal for significant structural reform of the financial industry.
I like Lind, although I don’t agree with him entirely. (What’s with the fetishization of “Scots-Irish blood,” a la David Hackett Fisher’s ponderous and long-since discredited Albion’s Seed?) More concerning to me is the presumption that commitments to social justice (feminism, the Civil Rights movement) and to environmentalism are necessarily at war with populism. (Ain’t we the people, too?) The major problem with so-called “Jacksonian Democracy” was its full-blooded commitment to racism, patriarchy, and imperial expansion. When states changed their laws to expand the franchise to all free, white men, they used specifically racialized and gendered language in their new laws defining the rights of citizenship. So, Lind’s analysis of the body politic appears sometimes to be just as exclusive as Jackson’s, and his political advice (“we need to bring back socially conservative white menz!”) sounds a lot like Pat Buchanan’s. (For another version of this kind of argument, see the fatuous Peter Beinart, who says that the majority of the Democratic party should shut the frack up. What a tool.)
Considering the fact that women are the majority of Democratic voters, and that there are fewer white people proportionately in the Democratic party than in the other party, this appears to me to be a strategic flaw. Ignoring the ways in which feminism, Civil Rights, and gay rights have changed the party is another surefire path to electoral failure. That’s my two cents, anyway–go read the whole thing and tell me what you think.