Something about the Republican dance with populism these days reminds me of one of those classic Twilight Zone episodes: Aliens come down to earth. They want to help us! (They even have a book called To Serve Man!) Wait a minute ... they want to eat us! (It’s a cookbook.) From there things take a decidedly downward turn.
One suspects that Republicans may be in for a similarly demoralizing experience. Here’s why:
When NPR asked Sen. Jim DeMint this week why Republicans were pressing to reduce Social Security benefits (a subject that had long been considered off limits for politicians interested in re-election), he answered, "It is politically dangerous, but I think the mood of the country is different than it has been [at] any time in my lifetime." The "mood" he’s talking about is the so-called "new populism," the voter anger expressed everywhere from Tea Party rallies to voting booths in 2010. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]
When you think of traditional populism, it evokes images of regular people rising up against a remote, usually corporate, elite that’s run roughshod over their rights. Farmers and working people taking on runaway industrialists and robber barons. Traditionally, Democrats have been most receptive to these kinds of appeals. In response, they’ve pushed government to enact programs aimed at protecting those most vulnerable to the predations of more powerful interests.
For the new populists, government is the remote elite. Instead of unsafe working conditions or unfair lending practices, they’re protesting the ills of government spending and overreach, the wasting of taxpayer dollars. And if their efforts undo the kinds of programs that a more traditional brand of populism might embrace—those aimed at helping the less advantaged make their way—so be it. It’s populism Republican style. And Republicans look like they’re going to ride it for all its worth. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]
But what happens when you start cutting programs that are in and of themselves something of a check on potential populist anger? That’s one way to look at government programs: There’s a need that’s not being addressed, and rather than let it ferment, government, however clumsily, tries to fill the gap. Sometimes the proposed gap filler is ridiculous (Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s "Department of Peace" springs to mind). Other times, it becomes part of the very fabric of our country.
Take public schooling. Public schools reflect a societal judgment that children should have a chance to succeed without regards to wealth or socioeconomic background. To help get them there, we don’t give every kid a million dollars and say "have at it," we offer them a tuition-free classroom with a curriculum designed to put them on an equal footing with everyone else when they enter the workforce. What they do from there is up to them.
It doesn’t always work out, of course. Some schools are better than others. So are some teachers. But wherever our various debates about education reform end up, public schools reflect a deeply held American value: that there are some public goods (like an educated workforce) that we, as a society, believe are worth individual (taxpayer) costs. That seems to have become lost in the current debate.
Take another look at what’s underway in Wisconsin. A centerpiece of Gov. Scott Walker’s budget is a $1 billion cut in education funding. That’s a big number that may sound appealing to people worked up about government spending today, but in September when they send their kids to schools with classroom sizes twice as big as a year before, they may begin to remember why they thought it was a good idea to fund education in the first place. Presto! New populists transformed into traditional populists. Only now their target has shifted from Democrats to Republicans. And you can imagine the same phenomenon playing out across a whole host of issues, from Social Security to shared revenue. [See photos of the protests in Madison, Wis.]
Republicans may have momentum on their side at the moment, but there’s a long way to go in the various budget battles playing out across the country. To be sure, Democrats can overplay their hand, too, by opposing any kind of spending restraint.
But one way or the other, populism is sure to play a role in determining how it all turns out. Which strain of populism wins? For Republicans, the answer is kind of like the difference between To Serve Man (they’re helping us!) and To Serve Man (oh wait, they’re eating us). And they had better hope they’ve got it right.