We Can't Allow Conservatives to Badmouth Populism

A spectre is apparently haunting America – the specter of "populism." "New populism spurs Democrats on the economy," cried the front page headline in The New York Times the other day. Republicans rail against unseemly "class warfare," while centrist Democrats fret that hard-edged populist appeals will spook suburban voters.

"It is not unusual," The New York Times explained, "for candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination to move left in the primary season." However, rhetoric aside, there is little reason to view today's supposedly wild-eyed Democrats as "populist" or "leftwing" at all.

Consider John Edwards, who the press and Republicans have cast as the heartthrob of the resurgent "left." The centerpiece of Mr Edwards' agenda is a call for universal health coverage. It sounds radical to American ears, perhaps. But Margaret Thatcher would have been chased from office in the UK if she had proposed a health plan as radically conservative as Mr Edwards' -- under which private doctors would supply the medicine, and years would still pass with millions of Americans uncovered.

Mr Edwards wants to lift the minimum wage substantially, and to boost wage subsidies for low-income work besides. But the outer limits of Mr Edwards' ambition would leave low income work less generously compensated than the minimum wage and subsidy blend enacted by Britain's New Labourites Tony Blair and Gordon Brown -- arrangements Conservative party leader David Cameron says suit him just fine.

On taxes, Mr Edwards wants to return marginal rates for high earners from 35 per cent to the 39.6 per cent level that existed under Bill Clinton -- rates slightly lower than those in force after Mrs Thatcher got through cutting them. Mr Edwards jawbones against outsized CEO pay that is divorced from performance -- a concern that arch-capitalist Warren Buffet trumpets at every opportunity. Mr Edwards' plans for college aid would still leave American graduates far deeper in debt than anything conservative parties across Europe would tolerate.

Mr Edwards and others question the received wisdom that "free trade is good no matter how many people get hurt," but here again, this is not as "leftist" as some seem to think. We know this from the recent American debate on immigration, where not a single market-loving economist made the case for unfettered immigration of unskilled workers. Why not? Because of the social havoc it would cause.

The idea that the consequences of free markets are worth considering when assessing how open an economy should be has therefore already been conceded by the economics profession. One can cherish the enormous gains to be had from trade and still note that it is only a matter of time (and the jobs of more politically vocal Americans being offshored) before economists routinely apply this distributional logic to trade in goods and services as instinctively as they apply it to trade in people.

I could go on, but you get the point. The fact that a Thatcher-Cameron-Buffet agenda can be hyped as "populist" says more about propaganda success and media norms than anything else. Over three decades, America's conservative movement has so deftly shifted the boundaries of debate to the right that even modest adjustments to the market system can be cast as the second coming of Marx without anyone blushing. Today's phony populist fears also remind us that the real problem with the media is not ideology but stenography. If official sources call something "populist" often enough, it is.

More depressing is that many Democrats fall into the same trap, worrying that a Thatcher-Cameron agenda in America will frighten suburban swing voters, rather than asking themselves how they might win the argument over the direction America needs to take. At this rate, Americans will be lucky to catch up a decade from now to today's social policy consensus in the UK. Meanwhile, Brits and others will have moved forward on a new generation of ideas to help citizens find security and opportunity in a global economy.

But maybe America's latest surreal debate should not come as a surprise. It stands to reason that a country capable of turning Bill Clinton's lies about sex into an epic national crisis can morph a prim Tory platform into some scary rush to the barricades. And so America hyperventilates again, too busy gasping theatrically for breath to know its actual condition.

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