I don’t necessarily buy the notion that public discontent with the recent AIG retention bonuses, or with Wall Street’s role in the economic meltdown overall, is a signpost of resurgent populist feeling. (It takes more than fleeting moods to swing public sentiment in lasting ways.) Nevertheless, a lot of people apparently do, across the political spectrum… or at least find it convenient to say they do. The right wing, in particular, has familiar anti-populist memes ready and waiting.

This week’s Newsweek attempts to cover every possible point of view on the subject in nine separate essays, but they’re all wrapped in a cover that frames things in terms of “POPULIST RAGE,” in a big scary headline. In the conservative American Thinker, Richard Baehr expresses things more baldly, in a piece entitled “Class War In America”:

We are now in the midst of a tidal wave of anti-corporate, anti-Wall Street and anti-capitalist hysteria. As with so much else in American politics, Hollywood can be counted on as a loyal ally to deliver the messages of the left through the vehicle of entertainment.

…How many movies on the evils of Wall Street do you think are now on the drawing board? Demonize the wealthy to create class warfare, deliver a message that corporations routinely take risk to enrich themselves and the few, while the rest of us suffer the consequence of their bad bets, make folks believe that only government is fair and on their side, and Democrats are the party of fairness (the Republicans, of course are assigned the role as the Party of the big banks and Wall Street, who ripped us off, and deregulated the financial industry to accomplish this). 

Populism has been let loose in America, and it is a dangerous thing. Republican are not free of exploiting this disease of course (Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley encouraging AIG executives to commit suicide!).

…A mass movement is being created in America. Mass movements are not nuanced. They need good guys and bad guys, and an emotional desire to ruthlessly steamroller the bad guys. The left attacked George Bush for creating a simplistic division of the world into good guys and bad guys, and for using terminology like the axis of evil.

We are seeing something similar now, but not for use in unifying the country for a targeted conflict abroad, but for use in changing the very foundations of our economy.

Baerh apparently thinks that if he couches uncomfortable truths in tones dripping with sufficient contempt, those truths will seem false. But the fact is, “class warfare” can just as easily—and often more accurately—be seen as a top-down phenomenon. The underlying assumption is that a status quo in which those with the most wealth also wield the most power, and ultimately set the rules for the rest of us, is a natural, just, and good state of affairs—not a construct deserving of critique—forcing the conclusion that those who criticize it must be driven by base emotions.

This assumption doesn’t really stand up to the light of day, of course. The powerful can afford to be much more genteel about how they oppose the interests of their socioeconomic opposites… but the dynamic is nevertheless plain for all to see.

In a typical manifestation of authoritarian thinking, though, many on the right just don’t seem to mind it. There’s a reliable faction of “conservatives” who seem instinctively drawn to the defense of those with power, regardless of what they may actually be doing.

Strip away that worship of status quo power relations, though, and there’s nothing to be concerned about here. Radical populists are not threatening our way of life. Quite the opposite, in fact. Two pieces from the Washington Post:

William Greider:

Something fundamental has been altered in American politics. Encouraged by Obama’s message of hope, agitated by darkening economic prospects, many people have thrown off sullen passivity and are trying to reclaim their role as citizens. This disturbs the routines of Washington but has great potential for restoring a functioning democracy. Timely intervention by the people could save the country from some truly bad ideas now circulating in Washington and on Wall Street. Ideas that could lead to the creation of a corporate state, legitimized by government and financed by everyone else. Once people understand the concept, expect a lot more outrage.

…”Populist anger” is a condescending label pundits use to suggest an irrational, unruly temperament. But what’s really going on is deeper and potentially more forceful. It will not be contained with good rhetoric or symbolic gestures.

Populism was the highly creative, self-made movement formed by desperate farmers in the late 19th century. It is disparaged in elite circles, but it generated vital ideas that ultimately reshaped government and democracy. We are not there yet, not even close. But the impulse for small-d democracy could be very healthy — if the political system learns to listen and respond.

Barack Obama can resist all this, if he chooses, but he seems conflicted. Obama’s approach so far is devoted to restoring Wall Street’s famous names, and his economic advisers tell him this is the “responsible” imperative, no matter that it might offend the unwashed public. … The president needs to hear a second opinion — millions of them.

E.J. Dionne:

We are at the beginning of a great popular rebellion against those who showed no self-restraint when it came to lining their own pockets. Their entitlement mentality arose from an inflated sense of their own value and of how much smarter they were than everyone else.

The sound you are hearing in response to the AIG payoffs — excuse me, bonuses — is the rancorous noise of their arrogance crashing to earth.

Yet there is much hand-wringing that this populist fury is terribly perilous, that the highfliers who could not control their avaricious urges have skills essential to repairing the damage they caused in the first place.

Beware populism, we are told. Honor those AIG contracts. Forget about any moral reckoning and just fix the economy.

This view is wrong on almost every level, especially about populism. Of course not all forms of populism are attractive. But as historian Michael Kazin argued in The Populist Persuasion, the “language of populism in the United States expressed a kind of idealistic discontent” and “a profound outrage with elites who ignored, corrupted and/or betrayed the core ideal of American democracy.”

A study of compensation levels in 2007 found that average CEO pay at S&P 500 companies was 344 times higher than the average worker’s wage, and that the top 50 investment fund managers took home 19,000 times — yes, that’s with three zeroes — as much as typical workers earned.

Now, I am not against people getting rich or entrepreneurs reaping profit from their investments of time and energy. But there is no moral or practical justification for such levels of inequality. Capitalism worked extremely well in the three decades after World War II without such radical inequities. It’s when inequalities soar that the system runs into trouble — precisely what happened at the end of the 1920s, when inequality reached levels similar to today’s.

With the populist furies unleashed, the Obama administration has two choices. It can try to fight the public. Or it can use the public’s outrage to move the country in a better direction.

…To make this case, the administration should be unafraid to use its proposals on health care, taxes, education, energy and financial regulation to argue that it is building a new economy on the ashes of the old — an economy based on fair rewards to capital and labor alike, not on an ethic of greed and excess.

What people are clamoring for, fundamentally, is fairness. Nothing more nor less. And that’s what reactionaries like Baehr are arguing against.

There’s no harm in letting them rant, though. In fact, as with lots of other recent right-wing talking points (Obama’s fomenting a Socialist revolution! A Marxist takeover! Appeasement of terrorists! And he’s a bad speaker who uses teleprompters too much! 🙄 ), it lets people know more clearly than ever just how far from reality the “conservative movement” really stands. As such, it paves a sure path toward political irrelevance.

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