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Not So Fast, Sosnik: Why Today's Populism May Be Gone Tomorrow

David Callahan

Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik has a long memo out arguing that the new populism is here to stay. He writes that the:

turmoil and dissatisfaction that we have been experiencing for the past 10 years could well continue through the end of this decade. However, underneath this turmoil you can see the shape of an emerging populist movement that will, in time, either move the politicians to action or throw them out of office. 

Sosnik makes a good case that public disaffection with both corporations and government will continue to shape politics, even as the Tea Party loses momentum and Occupy Wall Street becomes a distant memory. He points to stagnating living standards and rising inequality as core drivers of a populism that will seek to rein in financial elites, reduce corporate welfare, shrink America's overseas presence, and downsize government. 

It all makes sense, except for one thing: History suggests that populist moments don't last so long in America and, at this point, we're more likely at the tail end of the most recent populist uptick, not in the middle of the much bigger sea change that Sosnik suggests.
Consider this: Nearly every point that Sosnik makes about American life today was also true back in 1992, during the last populist surge. Inequality had been rising sharply for twenty years, the middle class was getting whacked, economic growth was tepid, trust in government had been in the dumps since Watergate, financial elites were running amuck, and there were calls to retrench globally after the Cold War. Ross Perot, despite his weirdness, emerged as a major political figure. Term limits were enacted all over the country. 
Flash forward to the late 1990s, just a few years later, and we find Americans fat and happy again, swapping stock tips at the mall and generally ignoring all things political. A few years after that, during the Bush years, it was all about granite counter tops and home equity loans. The electoral earthquake of 2006 that Sosnik sees as the start of the today's populist uprising can instead be explained as voters punishing Republicans at the polls for orchestrating the biggest foreign policy disaster since Vietnam and presiding over a culture of corruption in Washington featuring the likes of Jack Abramoff. 
The traumatic shock of the financial crisis did deliver a major jolt, but the reaction of many Americans has been far more blithe than Sosnik suggests. Remember, the unemployment rate for college educated Americans has been consistently under 4 percent for much of the past few years -- meaning, in effect, there has barely been a recession at all for this crowd. 
It's not clear that the biggest populist revolt of our era -- the Tea Party -- has that much to do with either the financial crisis or some deeper disaffection with big business and big government. Older conservative whites may mainly have mobilized in 2009 -- and dominated elections in 2010 -- because a young black guy got into the White House and tried to impose "socialism," scaring the heck out of these folks. Such conservative backlashes have happened before when liberals reached for power, or whites got scared, and shouldn't be confused with enduring populist shifts. 
If you study public opinion polls about the economy and politics going back to the 1940s, what you'll find are moments of intense disaffection among Americans when the economy is doing poorly. Yet the moment things get better, and people have spending money, that disaffection evaporates pretty quickly -- even if broader patterns of inequality endure. Likewise, isolationism and anti-corporate sentiments tend to come in cycles, rising and then falling. 
Now, if the economy never actually improves, as some worry, then we could indeed be heading for the more enduring populist moment that Sosnik envisions. More likely, though, the economy will continue to get slowly better and political life will get back to normal, especially if the GOP tacks more to center. 
None of this is to say that economic inequality and stagnant living standards, along with distrust of big business, don't present big opportunities to build a progressive majority. Clearly, this a ripe moment for a strong progressive critique of the economy and politics. But if we also assume pitchforks will be in vogue for years to come, we'll probably be wrong.