The country is ready for a new opposition economic program

Robert Kuttner

November 13, 1990|By Robert Kuttner

RECENT political events -- the budget clash and the midterm elections -- confirm that America is ready for a new opposition economic program. In the 1980s, the opposition program was Reaganism. But Reaganomics has clearly worn out its welcome.

What new axis of political choice will replace the circa-1980 choice of the New Deal versus the supply side? Some recent books help shed light on that question.

Michael Barone's encyclopedic "Our Country" reminds us that the political map etched in our consciousness in Franklin Roosevelt's day no longer describes America. We are no longer a nation of farmers, factory workers and urban ethnics -- and we need a new set of political symbols. After 1968, Republicans grasped the new reality earlier than Democrats, and were rewarded with the White House.

However, as Sidney Blumenthal's "Pledging Allegiance" (on the 1988 campaign) and Kevin Phillips' "The Politics of Rich and Poor" suggest, the Republicans may well have botched their chance to define a new axis of choice. Reagan-style conservatism was an amalgam of opposites. Almost as soon as Reagan left the scene, as unifying symbol, it imploded.

Despite the Republican presidential success in 1988, the positive and negative icons of Reaganism no longer resonate with the voters. And the disaffection with incumbents and the generally sour electoral mood suggest that neither party has yet drawn a political map that comports with the new economic realities.

Phillips, a Republican, thinks the electorate is ready for a new populism. For a time, in the 1980s, the Republicans were able to yoke the aspirations of the middle class with the self-interest of the rich. This undercut the New Deal coalition of the workaday middle class with the poor and created a new majority. For a brief anomalous moment, it was "populist" to identify with millionaires.

But today, the middle class no longer feels served by the politics of rewarding the rich. As the Democrats discovered, to their own astonishment, a dose of populism in the budget wars turned out to be winning politics. It not only forced Bush to abandon his plans for another walk on the supply side by way of capital-gains tax cuts; it spoke to the frustrations of middle-class voters.

But, as Phillips suggests, populism is still up for grabs. If tax reform is one winning plank of an opposition populist program, what are the others?

"America's Misunderstood Welfare State," by Theodore Marmor, Jerry Mashaw and Philip Harvey, offers one set of themes. Programs like Social Security and Medicare, they argue, are popular for good reasons. Contrary to the neo-liberal notion that these are merely budget busters which bribe the middle class, Marmor et al. demonstrate that universal social insurance is sound economics and smart politics -- not charity. Universal health insurance, they suggest, is not only equitable; it is more efficient as well.

I suspect that the next opposition economic program will be populist in several distinct respects. It will restore a healthy whiff of class politics to the political map. The budget debate was the first taste. The cheekiest bit of political effrontery on the part of the supply siders was the charge that their opponents were practicing class warfare. The real class warfare was the Reagan program itself.

Secondly, as Marmor and his co-authors suggest, the new economic program will seek to reclaim the public sector for public purposes. The programs of the 1930s fit the demographic map of the 1930s -- impoverished elderly people, unemployed factory workers. The skepticism on the part of today's voters about the public sector is not anti-government per se. It is justifiably dubious about whether government is pointed in the right direction, and whose interests it is serving. A young family, looking for affordable housing, comprehensive health insurance, decent schools, child care and bridges that don't collapse is right to wonder where government went wrong.

Finally, a new populism will embrace a benign form of economic nationalism. Contrary to the elite internationalism of the opinion-leader class -- which insists that the nation state has ceased to have much economic meaning -- most people don't attend economic seminars in Switzerland. Most people work where they live, and their economic destiny depends on the economic health of their own nation and community.

This doesn't require "Japan bashing." It does require a politics that defines America's economic self-interest, and makes it as high a priority as our military interests.

There is no guarantee that either party will take the inchoate pocketbook frustration in the land and fuse it into a coherent politics. There is even less guarantee that the brand of populism will be morally attractive and respectful of differences, rather than nativist.

Unless decent forms of populism are offered -- like Social Security and Medicare, and broad opportunities for economic betterment -- history suggests that the uglier forms -- racism, nativism, know-nothingism -- will rear their heads. I hope our leaders will find their way to a populist high road. If not, many voters will take the low road.

Robert Kuttner writes regularly on economic matters.

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