The Demand for Populism in the Imaginary Age of Anxiety

I read Ross Douthat’s new Atlantic article on the electoral opportunity open to the Democrats as a chance to characterize the Democratic “threat” in a way that makes Douthat’s conservative “populist” alternative look like an attractive counter-strategy for ’08 Republicans in the market for advisers.

The pressure of continued outsourcing may also increase the public’s appetite for a smart left populism, as even well-educated workers—in fields from financial services to health care—begin to face stiff competition from overseas. In this landscape, it’s easy to imagine the middle-class anxiety that the political scientist Jacob Hacker termed “office-park populism” defining the domestic debate over the next 20 years, and easy to imagine a Democratic majority that capitalizes on the opportunity.

The phrase “easy to imagine” has all the virtues of theft over honest toil. It is “easy to imagine” that the Kaiser won the Great War and that I’m writing in German (and a pith helmet). Likewise, it is easy to imagine Jacob Hacker’s nowlargelydiscredited thesis of income volatility and our current cyclical financial worries defining domestic politics in a generation, but why would we bother to imagine it? Let’s imagine instead the centrality of the coming “robot gap” in American politics.

There is good evidence that many Americans just now are worried about the economy and find it hard to pay off debt, as this Harris Poll shows. But, on the other hand, this doesn’t seem to be breeding the kind of discontent likely to push a populist to power. According to another very recent Harris Poll, the level of overall satisfaction is up since 2003, well over half of Americans say their life situation has improved over the last few years, and nearly 2/3 expect it to improve over the next five. Some of this pretty clearly has an economic component. When broken down according to generation, Gen X-ers, like me, (ages 31-42, according to Harris) were most likely to report improvement in their life situation over the past five years, and this is likely because we saw the largest wage gains in that period as many of us finished the 20s transition from entry-level to mid- and upper-level positions. By contrast the oldest cohort–either holding steady in late career, or retired–was least likely to report an gain in life satisfaction over the last half-decade. Sensibly enough, the young group Harris calls the “Echo Boomers” (aka “Gen Y” — ages 18-30), slightly edges out X-ers as most likely to expect improvement in their life situation. The level and trend of American life satisfaction looks so rosy and expectations for future improvement are so high, that it is hard for me to see how a populist politics is supposed to hit takeoff velocity, or how Democrats are supposed to capitalize on some kind of alleged trend of high anxiety that never seems to materialize in the numbers.

Economic anxiety is cyclical. Housing market aside, the current economic indicators look good. I’ll be surprised if the public isn’t pretty happy with its economic lot in a year or so–and especially when Bush is clearing brush full time. In any case, conservatives don’t need to think right-wing populism is just the thing to stave off left-wing populism, since left-wing populism built on some elusive but magically potent middle class economic anxiety is about as authentic a threat as Osama’s caliphate.