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Populist potential

By W. James Antle III
web posted August 1, 2005

The NationThe cover of the August 15 issue of The Nation features the bedraggled visage of socialist U.S. Rep. Bernard Sanders, the independent who serves as Vermont’s lone congressman. Bernie is drawn clutching a pitchfork against the backdrop of the Green Mountain State’s cow country, beside the subhead: “What Democrats Can Learn from Sanders-Style Populism.”

At this point, readers to the right of, say, Ralph Nader are tempted to roll their eyes. The headline writers might as well say the Democrats should turn their backs on Bill Clinton – their only winning presidential candidate since 1976 – and embrace the politics of Dennis Kucinich. It’s exactly the kind of idealistic but unrealistic advice one would expect from an eccentric lefty magazine, the sort that self-respecting Republicans know better than to take seriously.

But they should take it seriously. Bernie Sanders is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by liberal Republican-turned-independent Sen. Jim Jeffords in 2006. Despite his avowed socialism, he is likely – almost certain – to win.

Vermont may not be a national bellwether. The once reliably Republican state voted against FDR four times; as the national GOP’s fortunes improved from the 1980s onward, it trended Democrat. Today, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean is one of the state’s more conservative political figures.

Move over Ethan Allen. To most politicos, the name “ Vermont” conjures images of Ben and Jerry, Birkenstocks and same-sex civil unions. Yet not everything that has kept Sanders in Congress for the past 14 years and has put him in line for a promotion is Vermont-specific.

Economic populism may be a viable strategy for Democrats in vast sections of the country. It’s certainly one rural and Rust Belt Democratic politicians, reeling from increasingly red surroundings, are likely to try.

Sanders, as Nation Washington correspondent John Nichols notes in his story, presents himself as a friend to the workingman. His campaigns focus on such pocketbook issues as jobs, economic security and health care – the congressman unabashedly favors the Canadian single-payer approach – and he uses his congressional franking privilege to keep his constituents up to date on corporate depredation.

As a result, Sanders has won strong support not just from Vermont progressives but from more culturally conservative voters in the reddish sections of the state along the New Hampshire border. Polls show him leading likely opponents in his Senate race by a 2 to 1 margin. State Democrats are poised to take a pass on opposing him.

The conventional wisdom says Bernie Sanders shouldn’t even exist. Conservatives were supposed to have won the debate over free markets as an extra peace dividend from their Cold War victory. Liberals, for their part, were supposed to have won the culture war.

On this latter point, the consensus is already breaking down. While the effect of the 2004 values vote can be overstated, it is clear to all but the most ideologically obstinate that on social issues like abortion, prayer and gay marriage, conservatives have an advantage in such key regions as the South – and, on balance, nationally. The country may be divided in these debates, but their salience has been a net benefit to Republicans.

Is the economic consensus similarly mistaken? The public did not rush to embrace free-market Social Security reform with personal accounts. Republicans have replaced rhetorical fusillades against big government with soothing talk about compassionate conservatism.

Canada and Western Europe are closer to the “end game of the welfare state” than the United States, but progress toward retrenchment or market-based reforms in most of these countries has been fitful at best. Huge constituencies still exist for even the most unsustainable entitlements and the most onerous regulations of business. A politician who calls for a longer work week in France, for instance, is placing his career in jeopardy.

Contrast this with the situation in the U.S. which, progressives never hesitate to remind us, is the only major industrialized country without national health insurance. Despite falling unemployment and 4 percent annual growth rates, deep economic anxiety persists among many Americans. Some of this unease is no doubt attributable to media coverage that is noticeably less inclined to showcase good news than during the Clinton administration, but much of it has deeper roots.

A country where people see jobs being outsourced to the Third World and families fear they will be bankrupted by medical bills is going to be more open to the idea that corporations are harmful and government can be helpful. So far national Democrats, who have acquired a reputation for foreign-policy weakness, cultural weirdness and a propensity to raise taxes, have been unable to connect with such concerns.

Unconventional politicians like Sanders have been able to succeed where establishment Democrats have failed. Another example may be found in Montana, where Democrat Brian Schweitzer used populist themes as he claimed the governorship in a state George W. Bush won by a landslide. Schweitzer is no social liberal – he opposed both gay marriage and gun control – but even the socialist Sanders won his initial House races as a relatively pro-gun candidate.

Populism is no sure bet. The would-be populists, by portraying capital gains as the richest 1 percent’s ill-gotten gains and speaking as if the average American was either a factory worker or minimum-wage employee, often paint a picture of the economy that today’s worker-investors are unlikely to recognize.

There are also powerful, pro-growth counterarguments to those who peddle zero-sum economics. But Washington’s big-government conservatives are ill suited to make them. The right is no longer comfortable talking about markets or the limits of government.

That leaves the realm of economics to the likes of Bernie Sanders. Nichols writes that Sanders possesses “an unyielding faith that people want to talk about the issues that matter in their lives.” Conservatives should at least have faith that people will count among such issues jobs and their families’ standard of living.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.


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