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This morning’s Washington Post article on the new-found popularity in American politics of the label “populism” makes a crucial point:  The term is becoming so widespread among so many different kinds of politicians that it’s threatening to become meaningless. After all, if everyone is a populist, can anyone really be?

At the same time, it’s pretty stunning how many more legitimate reasons for populism’s proliferation have been missed by author David Greenberg, a Rutgers University historian.

Chiefly, the author expresses thinly veiled contempt for Republican leaders who have adopted the populist mantle. “Its promiscuous application [nowadays],” he writes, “has usually meant forgetting and forsaking key parts of the original Populists’ agenda. This year’s Republican candidates — an assortment of senators, governors, a surgeon, a CEO — may rail against Washington and claim to fight for the little guy, but in most cases, their view of government’s role in economic life couldn’t be more starkly opposed to the Populists’ ideals.

Yet Greenberg overlooks the fact that since the late-19th century heyday of the original Populists, an impressive level of prosperity has become so widespread that a leading national economic challenge today is preserving a middle class worthy of the name, not creating one in the first place. One main reason is that “government’s role in economic life” has ballooned so dramatically. As a result, however, the defining characteristic of populism can no longer simply be support for yet more government spending.

Just as important, government’s immense scale – and consequent intrusiveness – combined with growing affluence, partly explains why conservatives who rail against this role do have some valid claim to populism. It also explains why this message resonates so powerfully among so many Americans who have not amassed fortunes of any size, and who believe that their lives – and their hopes for their children – have become more economically and financially fragile.

In addition, populism today is arguably broader than the big government-smaller government debate because two major sources of middle and working class economic anxiety – job-killing trade deals and immigration policies – are at best tangential to Greenberg’s framework.

To be sure, the author takes some Democrats and liberals to task as well for faux populism. But here his critique emphasizes style, not substance. Writing of Hillary Clinton, for example, he argues that because “symbolism matters in politics,” although she “can fairly claim to have voiced the concerns of those lower on the economic ladder, her years in establishment circles have made it hard for her to denounce a rigged system with the fire-and-brimstone zeal that the populist label suggests.”   

So Greenberg’s bottom line appears to be that a true populist today must not only stand for big government, but mainly champion society’s poorest. On the substance, this position is certainly defensible. But it’s an odd form of populism that doesn’t speak to the leading – and entirely valid – concerns expressed by a large demographic majority. Indeed, many prominent Democrats ,who worry about their party’s recent difficulties in winning middle and working class votes, will probably find populism a la Greenberg pretty deficient too.  

Moreover, the author’s priorities indicate that he’s mistaking populism for what is actually a phenomenon that New York Times reporter Noam Scheiber has brilliantly identified as “Boardroom Liberalism.”

As Scheiber wrote in a New Republic article last year, this political outlook is “a worldview that’s steeped in social progressivism, in the values of tolerance and diversity. It takes as a given that government has a role to play in building infrastructure, regulating business, training workers, smoothing out the boom-bust cycles of the economy, providing for the poor and disadvantaged. But it is a view from on high—one that presumes a dominant role for large institutions like corporations and a wisdom on the part of elites. It believes that the world works best when these elites use their power magnanimously, not when they’re forced to share it. The picture of the boardroom liberal is a corporate CEO handing a refrigerator-sized check to the head of a charity at a celebrity golf tournament. All the better if they’re surrounded by minority children and struggling moms.”

I explained here why this approach of throwing a continuing and even growing stream of crumbs to the poor is as looney on the merits as it looks politically cynical. Too bad Greenberg doesn’t seem to have read Scheiber before submitting his draft to the Post. Going forward, I’d suggest that he, and others, use these tests of populism instead: Who’s really getting the one percent’s goat? Who’s viewed as a genuine danger to its power and privilege? Because you can bet that the powers-that-be – which of course includes the Washington Post and the rest of America’s media elite – are too smart to waste their time trashing, ridiculing, and otherwise trying to marginalize phony populists.

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