Why a Right-Winger Can't Be a Populist

(From the April 15, 2003, issue of The Progressive Populist)

The authentic American ideology of rebellion is populism. Many lay claim to the term. In general it suggests some kind of grassroots opposition to oppressive elites. Absent any specifics, the idea still says a lot. The ordinary person is not the master of his or her fate. The political system imperfectly reflects the popular interest. The popular interest should be supreme, in contrast to narrow elite interests.

Naturally, diverse political tendencies characterize such elites in terms of their favorite demons. Culture and values, among other things, are highly contested. For the sake of this essay I put them aside to focus on Money.

Conservative persons are often so inclined notwithstanding their misgivings about the economic policies of those to whom they award their political allegiance. Consider the lack of esteem in which George Bush's economic policies are held. Many will hasten to inform us that aside from war and terrorism (and in some cases Israel), they actually are some kind of liberal.

The economic philosophy of the Right is still trickle-down doctrine. Help the rich person and he will hire the poor person. Aggrieve the rich and the poor go jobless. We should resist the temptation to tax the better-off and the types of income they are wont to receive. Better to avoid burdening them with regulation. Prevent trial lawyers from harassing them with lawsuits. I suspect many self-identified "conservatives" don't buy this at all.

When it comes to elites, those with money, those who command huge business firms or non-profit organizations that operate behind a thin veneer of charitable rationale, privileged by limited liability -- these are real elites. The influence of such parties and their wealth in the affairs of government is obvious enough.

By contrast, pity the poor labor unions with their 16 million members, the tiny left organizations, the marginal radical magazines, the hollowed-out minority rights organizations.

A true populist cannot fail to recognize who is in charge, and consequently who is responsible for the inadequacies that stack the economic deck against workers, aspiring entrepreneurs, and consumers. So populism means siding with workers v. bosses, small business v. large corporations, and consumers v. unscrupulous merchants. Right-wing ideology conforms to populism in none of these match-ups.

Government is of course a thorny issue. The old-tyme populists, circa 1885, saw the public sector as potentially representing the will of the whole people. But representation costs money; taxes must be levied. Truth be told, there is not enough income among the 'rich' to finance government. Ordinary folks will have to chip in.

Even so, with some important exceptions, people look to government to solve important problems, in light of the inability of markets to function well in the provision of health care, environmental protection, job training, and the like. The Right usually obstructs such efforts.

As far as pocketbook issues are concerned, the Right would never rule for long in a democratic society, but for the availability of external threats. External threats are engendered, provoked, concocted, or in the instance where they are real, milked obsessively for domestic political consumption.

The dilemma for the militantly patriotic, right-wing worker is that the same disapproval that he or she intelligently applies to the manner in which moneyed elites mismanage the nation's economic affairs logically applies to their conduct of war and peace. Why should Senator Frist, for instance, be able to act corruptly in the realm of government subsidy of private HMOs (his family's business), but like a statesman in foreign policy? After all, there's a lot of money in foreign policy. Why should a political faction that does not deserve discretion in domestic policy be afforded it otherwise? A real populist would apply a high bar of skepticism to any elite briefs for war that do not obviously involve defense of the homeland.

Not only can a real populist not be right-wing, he cannot be soft on imperial ventures either. If government is an imperfect instrument, the greatest caution of all should impede its capacity to launch war. Populism is properly conservative when it comes to the government-sanctioned use of force.

Pat Buchanan is a case that needs to be considered. He offers a full-throated critique of expansionist foreign policy and comparable hostility to free trade. But a closer look points up the weakness of his message.

His foreign policy discussion is thoroughly marbled with an anti-semitic narrative that does more harm than good to anti-war agitation. This should not be surprising, since he is a race- and Jew-baiter from way back. On the economic side, he offers little in the way of constructive solutions. His remedy for unfair trade is huge tariffs. By contrast, trade can be beneficial so it needs to be humanized, not constricted. Otherwise he has little to say about unemployment. His hostility to government renders him bereft of effective policy solutions in the economic realm.

Buchanan's nativism is not helpful to the development of a populist movement because it alienates key sectors of the working class. Populism needs a united working class. The most dynamic sectors of the working class are immigrant-based. Ranting about foreign invaders is a sabotage of populist political development. Nativism is an intrinsically absurd ideology to begin with. Stupidity is not conducive to political progress either. This sort of discourse is not necessary for the appropriate control of borders.

There is also the basic issue of trust. Before Buchanan came to it, the Reform Party was a substantial political formation that had altered a presidential election and may have tipped it. He left it a smoking hole in the ground.

Populism speaks to a fundamental unmet need in American politics -- the proper balance between individual autonomy and government regulation, and the justifiable and prudent extent of discretion in the hands of government authorities. The Right fails to appreciate the proper and essential functions of government, in light of the amoral powers unleashed in the so-called free market.

Liberals and socialists fail to appreciate the necessary extent of individual autonomy, including the importance of entrepreneurship and self-employment, but that is a subject for another essay.

Max B. Sawicky is a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a member of the National Executive Committee of Americans for Democratic Action and the author of the "MaxSpeak" weblog at

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