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Can Big Government Progressives Seize the Populist Mantle?

David Callahan

Here's a basic conundrum facing progressives right now: We're the people who want more big government, yet populist anger at all major institutions -- public and private -- is the most powerful current in politics today. How do we square that circle?

The intensity of the populist mood is hardly a secret. Two major populist movements -- the Tea Party and Occupy -- have emerged in just the past few years, and polls show overwhelming public antipathy toward big institutions. For example, Gallup's long-time poll that tracks trust in government finds that the number of Americans who have no trust in government "at all" to handle problems is at an all-time high (since 1972). There have only been a few moments in the past 40 years that Americans have as little faith in government as they do now. 

Progressives can take solace in the fact that trust in banks and business is also near a historic low, according to Gallup, since that suggests strong public support for reining in these entities. 

But the obvious problem is this: If Americans don't trust government, what institution is the public going to empower to curb the outsized influence of big business? 

The Obamacare is a case in point. Americans hate and distrust large insurance companies, including health insurers. Given that, my colleague Robert Kuttner has argued that Team Obama should have framed the healthcare fight as an effort to rein in those corporations and pushed to expand Medicare and Medicaid to cover everyone, or least get a single-payer option. Instead, the Obama administration cut deals with the insurers. 

Kuttner may be right in his postmortem. Or not. We live in a moment when distrust of one big institution doesn't necessarily mean people want to grant new powers to another big institution. 

So what's the path forward? I see a few options.

First, this may just not be the moment to advance the cause of statist liberalism -- proposing sweeping new government solutions to societal ills. Instead, it may be a moment to advance progressive ideas that emphasize more localized, decentalized ideas which leverage the resources of all three sectors to achieve change -- government, civil society, and business (including worker owned cooperatives and other such entities). Certainly there are plenty of good ideas out there. 

Second, populist moments are incredibly ripe times to push campaign finance reform -- a cause that tends to unite a broad swath of disaffected Americans. A recent report by the Democracy Corps argues that money in politics is one of a few issues that can break through partisan gridlock and the "presumption of dysfunction in Washington."

Unfortunately, though, progressives have become nearly as addicted to big money as conservatives. As USA Today points out in an article today:

Liberal super PACs have spent $10.8 million on federal races this year -- twice as much as conservative super PACs. . . . Liberal money also makes up 70% of the election-related federal spending by 'dark money' groups - politically active non-profits that don't have to disclose the sources of their money ... In state races, unions and two billionaires promoting liberal causes led non-party, outside spending in last week's contests in New Jersey and Virginia.

Now, there are some very good reasons for this kind of spending, given the realities of the system, but excelling at the game we're criticizing presents inherent challenges. 

A final idea: while progressives have a strong critique of big business and banks, we're loath to criticize government -- except national security agencies. It wasn't always this way. The New Left of the 1960s had a very trenchant critique of an expansive (and paternalistic) state as a way to solve problems. I'm not saying we should go back to that critique, but I do think that progressives need to step outside the role of reflexive cheerleader for big government and seek constructive ways to channel populist concerns about unaccountable large institutions of all kinds. 

All of this is a small order, I know.