Reason No. 3: Public Sector Unions.
The left-populism of the New Deal era drew on both organized farmers’ movements and organized labor. The right’s counterrevolution against organized labor since the 1980s has all but annihilated unions in the private sector.
Can a populism of the left be based on the public sector workers who, with professionals and minorities, are part of the Democratic Party base? In theory, it could. The progressive view, set forth recently with admirable clarity and passion by Elizabeth Warren, is that the U.S. is a mixed economy, in which the success of the private and nonprofit sectors depends on the success of the public sector. And front-line public servants like police officers, first responders and teachers continue to command the respect of their neighbors.
But it is not easy for public servants to replace the construction workers in the New Deal murals as icons of the hardworking yeomanry. Samuel Gompers, the longtime president of the AFL-CIO, opposed public sector unions on the theory that, while private sector unions share profits with capitalists, the wages of public sector workers come out of taxes paid, in part, by private sector workers. Moreover, as right-wing opponents of public sector unions never tire of pointing out, unionized firms can go bankrupt, but governments can raise money by coercive taxation. For these reasons, it is much easier for conservatives, now that they have shattered private sector unions, to portray public sector workers as parasites on the producing classes in a Jacksonian morality play, than it is for progressives to assign to public sector workers the role in a left-populist coalition played by private sector unionists and farmers in the New Deal era.
Reason No. 4: Identity Politics.
The essence of populism of the left, right or center is the defense of the common good of the demos, the people, against unjust privileges sought by special interests — that is, populations who make up less than the whole. Populism only works if there is a clearly identifiable “people.”
In most nation-states “the people” is identified, in the popular mind if not officially, with the dominant ethnocultural population in the country—the French in France, the Czechs in the Czech Republic. For this reason, populism is easily captured by right-wing movements for whom the “true people” are members of the ethnic or racial majority and for whom national minorities are threatening outsiders.
But more inclusive versions of populism are possible. In the U.S. the idea of “the melting pot” held that Americans of many different ancestries, by cultural interchange and intermarriage, amalgamate over time to produce a new nationality that is distinct from ancestral subcultures. In its mid-century formulation, the melting pot ideal in practice was limited to the amalgamation of Anglo-Americans with immigrants from Ireland and continental Europe to form a kind of generic white “people.” With the Civil Rights Revolution, the white-ethnic melting pot could have been redefined as a larger, more inclusive trans-racial melting pot.
Instead, however, the American center-left from the 1970s onward rejected the idea of the melting pot, in favor of identity politics, which seeks the permanent preservation of ethno-racial identities as fixed elements of a multicultural America. These official ethno-racial identities are those of America’s Soviet-style bureaucratic racialism: non-Hispanic white, Hispanic (may be of any race), African-American, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Native American. A genuine left-wing populism in the last generation would have mocked these bureaucratic categories and celebrated fluidity and hybridization across racial lines. Instead, the power of identity politics is shown by the fact that Barack Obama, the son of a white mother and a black father, is identified, and identifies himself, as “black” rather than “mixed race.”