Republicans court cultural populism while Democrats eschew economic populism — but economic populism is the key

Republicans court cultural populism while Democrats eschew economic populism — but economic populism is the key
Oliver Anthony (screenshot)

Over the past week, Oliver Anthony’s video of his song “Rich Men North of Richmond” has gone viral, clocking more than 20 million views on YouTube. As it’s risen to the top of the streaming charts, it’s also become a theme song for reactionary conservatives (Marjorie Taylor Greene calls it “the anthem of the forgotten Americans”).

Oliver Anthony - Rich Men North Of

“Rich Men North of Richmond” expresses class resentment with words and music evocative of Woody Guthrie. But Guthrie aimed his fire at economic elites who oppressed hardworking Americans. Anthony is aiming at cultural elites who have reduced the status of white American-born men.

America is in a new populist age, but the new populism comes in two radically different forms: cultural and economic.

Today’s Republicans are wielding cultural populism on behalf of so-called “forgotten Americans” who are white, male, Christian, and nationalist.

For seven years, Donald Trump has rarely missed a day to blame all America’s problems on immigrants, Democrats, socialists, the mainstream media, the “Deep State” (including the FBI, Justice Department, prosecutors, and unfriendly judges), “coastal elites,” and, wherever possible (and usually indirectly), women and people of color.

Florida’s Ron DeSantis is basing his inchoate presidential campaign on a war against what he calls America’s “ruling class,” which includes bureaucrats, journalists, educators, and other supposed “woke” experts who, as DeSantis told the audience attending his campaign kickoff in Iowa in May, “are not enacting an agenda to represent us. They’re imposing their agenda on us, via the federal government, via corporate America and via our own education system.” DeSantis is shipping undocumented immigrants out of Florida, barring teaching about sex or America’s history of racism, blocking abortions after twelve weeks, requiring Trans young people to use bathrooms according to their gender at birth.

For Republican politicians these days, the culture wars are the central struggle of American public life. Why? Because cultural populism’s underlying political agenda is white male Christian nationalism. It aims to resurrect the social and racial hierarchy that dominated American life before the 1960s.

This not only fuels the Republicans’ mostly white, male, Christian, American-born base. It also reassures the fat cats bankrolling the GOP that working-class resentments are channeled away from economic populism — which could threaten the fat cats’ wealth.

What are Democrats doing with economic populism?

Some Democrats continue to talk about “forgotten Americans” who have been left behind economically. And Biden and his allies in Congress have made a good start at helping these Americans — even though most of the working middle class doesn’t seem to be aware of it.

But few Democrats are willing to blame what’s happened on economic elites. (When Bernie Sanders tried in 2016, the Democratic establishment squashed his presidential ambitions.)

Yet the Republicans’ cultural populism is bogus. The biggest change over the last three decades — the change lurking behind the insecurities and resentments of the working middle class — has nothing to do with identity politics, “woke”ism, Critical Race Theory, transgender kids, or any other current Republican bogeymen. It has directly to do with a huge shift in the distribution of income and wealth.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has just released a report showing changes in the distribution of family wealth from 1989 to 2019 (the first and the most recent years for which comparable survey data on family wealth are available).

Families in the top 10 percent of the distribution now hold more than two-thirds of all wealth. Families in the bottom half of the distribution hold only 2 percent of total wealth. (Families in the bottom quarter have negative net wealth — they’re in debt. Families in the top 1 percent — indeed, the top one-tenth of 1 percent — have a disproportionate share of the wealth of the top 10 percent.)

Look at the dramatic change over the last three decades. Although total wealth is much greater now than it was then, the distribution of that wealth is far more unequal. The bottom 50 percent hasn’t budged. Wealth at the top has exploded.

This change didn’t happen because of so-called “neutral market forces.” It happened because of policy decisions made over the last three decades.

What sort of decisions? To open the borders wide to imports from China. To deregulate Wall Street and allow it to make bets with other people’s money. To dramatically cut taxes on the rich. To let corporations bash unions and fire workers who try to organize. To encourage private equity to take over “underperforming” companies and then promptly fire workers and sell off assets. To allow big corporations to buy or merge with other big corporations. To bail out the biggest banks but not homeowners who get caught in the downdrafts. To encourage corporations to buy back their shares of stock rather than reinvest profits. To privatize higher education and push students into taking out massive college loans. And so on.

These policy decisions didn’t just happen, either. They were pushed by wealthy elites on Wall Street and in corporate C-suites, who made mammoth donations to politicians on both sides of the aisle — mostly but not exclusively Republican — to ensure that their wishes would be honored.

Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and other Republican culture warriors don’t represent “forgotten Americans.” They’ve championed the very policies that have caused these Americans to be forgotten.

Biden and most Democratic lawmakers in Congress are advocating policies that will make the nation more equitable, such as student-loan forgiveness and negotiated drug prices. But they’re reluctant to push very hard for higher taxes on the wealthy, or labor laws that make it easier to organize, or to roll back any of the other big structural changes that wealthy elites have put in place over the last 30 years.

And they don’t want to blame the rich for what’s happened.

“I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day / Overtime hours for bullshit pay,” Anthony sings.

Yes, you have — but not because cultural elites have replaced white Christian nationalist men with people of other races, genders, nationalities, and creeds.

It’s because America’s wealthy have turned their growing wealth into increasing political power to change the rules of the game in ways that further enlarge their wealth and power, while shafting the bottom half.

If Democrats don’t tell the economic truth about what’s happened and place the blame squarely where it’s deserved, the lies of Republican cultural populists will fill the void — not just with faux-populist lyrics, but with bad laws.

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