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Those dirty populists

January 26, 2010

David Brooks has terrible new column where he argues basically as follows: “populism and elitism are bad and divisive; the Democrats’ economic policies are populist, therefore, they’re bad and divisive.” But are Democrats’ economic policies populist in the negative, resentment-and-class-warfare sense Brooks has in mind? They’re certainly more egalitarian, but are they really more populist? By the same token, mightn’t the Republicans’ economic policies be–gasp!–elitist?

In reality, as Brooks himself seems to grasp, the populism-elitism distinction simply isn’t very useful for thinking about American politics. Which side of the divide one falls on is more a matter of style than substance. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are populists, but so was John Edwards. Populism is a less a political principle than a rhetorical device that can be used to argue for a wide range of principles. It’s less a matter of which policies you hold and more a matter of how you sell them. The other reason populism and elitism are not very useful categories is that they’re very often used with a negative connotation: a populist or elitist is often someone who has no principled argument for her policies other than mere preference for one class over another. Calling someone a populist or elitist is, in effect, refusing to take their arguments seriously.

Of course, lurking in the background of the populism-elitism divide is a substantive debate about what economic justice looks like and how it should be achieved. But this issue is only obscured by thinking about it in terms of populism and elitism. If we should be talking about how much economic equality there should be, then let’s talk about that instead of who’s punishing whom. Brooks is doing everyone a disservice by writing things like this:

They [populists] can’t seem to grasp that a politics based on punishing the elites won’t produce a better-educated work force, more investment, more innovation or any of the other things required for progress and growth.

If Brooks is so anti-populist, he should really devote equal time to criticizing pro-economic elite populists like Palin and Beck. And of course, the real issue isn’t whether the elites should be punished–of course they shouldn’t–but rather what constitutes punishment and what constitutes doing their fair share.

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