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Third Way's Astonishingly Weak Argument Against Progressive Populism

David Callahan

Last I checked, populism was the strongest force in American politics today, so it was odd to read an op-ed by Third Way leaders Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler arguing that populism is a sure loser for Democrats. Odder still was the fact that Cowan and Kessler never even manage a nod to populism's obvious potency. Instead, they concentrate fire on the policy specifics put forth by the likes of Bill de Blasio and Elizabeth Warren -- entirely missing the larger and far more relevant political picture.

Distrust of all major institutions is near a historic high, with Americans showing disdain for Washington and Wall Street alike. Congress's approval rating has literally never been lower, while distrust of banks and big business has rarely been higher. Americans are also deeply distrustful of the media, the medical system, the criminal justice system, and so on. 

Now, if the overwhelming majority of Americans don't like the powers that be, than attacking those powers just might make political sense. And, indeed, as it happens, we have just lived through the emergence of one of the strongest populist movements in nearly a century, the Tea Party, which has remade Republican politics in, oh, four years. We also just lived through the strongest upsurge in left-wing populism in a generation, Occupy Wall Street.

My own guess is that this populist moment won't last, but it's strange that Cowan and Kessler didn't acknowledge the elephant in the room here. Or even really engage the specific question of whether Democrats can score electoral gains by channeling this force. Recent history -- like that presidential election we just had -- suggests that Dems most certainly can score gains with a populist message. Mitt Romney could tell Kessler and Cowan a thing or two about this. Romney was taken apart before he even got to his convention with a murderous media campaign that turned him into Gordon Gekko. Have Kessler and Cowan forgotten those brutal ads playing through the Rust Belt about how Bain closed down plants and shipped jobs overseas? Or the fact that Obama scored a solid win in Ohio?

Now, maybe Cowan and Kessler don't think that Obama's populist attack on Romney was the clincher, but it's at least worth engaging that question if one wants to credibly debunk populism as a winning game plan.

Likewise, the authors are unpersuasive in arguing that tax hikes on the rich will only sell in Manhattan and Massachusetts. They cite the defeat of a tax hike in Colorado as a sign that such proposals are sure losers. But, come on, even a cursory reading of polling data on taxes -- not just in the past few years but going back decades -- shows that raising taxes on the rich tends to be very popular among Americans. That's why Obama has been pushing this idea for over four years. It's a winner. In fact, some polls show that raising taxes on the rich is pretty much the only deficit reduction proposal that commands majority public support. And yet Cowan and Kessler suggest Democrats should forget about such taxes. 

One reason they think tax hikes on the rich are a losing proposition is because, by their estimate, such hikes won't solve any of our fiscal problems. Wrong again. Sure, raising income taxes on the rich only gets you so far. But a broader menu of tax increases hitting the affluent, Wall Street, and corporations could generate real money: Raising the payroll cap on taxable income; taxing capital gains as normal income; eliminating deferred taxation on overseas corporate profits as part of a broader package of tax positive corporate tax reform; and -- most of all -- imposing a tax on financial transactions. Oh, and don't forget the fiscal upsides of broader tax reform that curbs breaks that mainly benefit the affluent -- like the home mortgage deduction. 

There's even more room to raise taxes on the affluent at the state level, where tax systems are often very regressive. 

One last point: Beyond taxes, there are lots of other issues where a progressive populist message can score big -- like around wages. Yes, the Colorado tax hike referendum went down, but the New Jersey minimum wage initiative passed with overwhelming support. 

Look, four or eight years from now, we may no longer be living in a populist moment. But we are now. And progressives should make the best of it.