Economic Populism vs. Cultural Liberalism

NYT: Dems Learn Difference Between Dobbs’ Populism & Faux Centrism

By David Sirota

I have a review of Lou Dobbs new book “War on the Middle Class” in today’s Sunday New York Times (the review is attached). The piece is entitled “The Pinstriped Populist.” I was initially miffed that they weren’t going to publish it before the election, but now I’m glad – because what I say in the review is even better borne out by Tuesday’s results.

As I say in the review, the basic premise of Dobbs’ book (and his television show) is simple:

“Cultural liberalism focusing on social issues that have only varying degrees of support among the general population is far different from full-throated Dobbs-style economic populism. It is undeniable that aside from Dobbs and a few politicians, America’s political debate is almost entirely devoid of economic populists. ‘War on the Middle Class’ confronts this problem head-on — and thanks to Dobbs’s passion and charisma, it succeeds in sounding an alarm that cannot be ignored.”

Dobbs-style populism, along with opposition to the Iraq War, was the overwhelming theme of the 2006 elections. There is no denying it. In the last few days, there have been a barrage of right-wingers and DLCers trying to hide this very simple fact. They have said the election was about Democrats pretending to be Republicans, citing people like Virginia Senator-elect Jim Webb – even as Webb himself recently appeared on Dobbs’ show to give voice to the very kind of economic populism many of us have been pushing for years. And, of course, even in the face of the New York Times’ own news page admitting the rise of populism this week, we are asked by the Establishment revisionists to simply forget about the election of red-region economic populists like Sherrod Brown, Jon Tester, Heath Shuler, Nancy Boyda and others.

Writers like Tom Frank, Chris Hayes, Matt Taibbi, Bill Greider and I have for years been pushing this brand of politics, and for our efforts we have all been attacked by Washington insiders and Big Money interests. I remember vividly the DLC attacking me for publishing “The Democrats’ Da Vinci Code” back in 2004 that proposed a populist national campaign strategy, citing real-world examples of how this strategy works in red regions of the country.

But we have stuck to our guns because polls show populism (aka. challenging economic power) is the “center” position in the public, even though it may not be the “center” position in a K-Street-owned Washington, D.C. On Tuesday, the true “center” won out over Washington’s faux “center” – whether our status quo opponents in Washington’s think tanks, cocktail parties, congressional cloakrooms and lobbying firms like it or not.

Oh, sure, there will continue to be efforts to revise history. We can look no further than the recent New York Times Sunday Magazine piece about populist leader Brian Schweitzer that shows just how desperate those Big Money representatives who have run the Democratic Party into the ground really are:

”’He’s as much a prairie centrist as he is a prairie populist,’ Bruce Reed of the Democratic Leadership Council told me. Schweitzer has the ability to reduce a complicated issue to a few sharp lines, reframing it with themes of patriotism and underdog know-how. ‘I was a critic of Nafta, I was a critic of Cafta and I’ll be a critic of Shafta,’ he says of free-trade agreements, long the hobgoblin of even the most articulate liberal politicians. ‘Why is it that America supposedly creates the best businessmen in the world, but when we go to the table with the third world, we come away losers?’”

It’s true – Schweitzer is a “centrist” in that he is at the center of American public opinion in his efforts to take on Big Money interests and give voice to Americans’ justifiable anger at the sellout trade policy pushed by the DLC. But that’s not what Reed is trying to say – he’s trying to claim Schweitzer as one of the DLC’s own, implying that the Montana governor is yet another mushy corporatist – an insult to what Schweitzer and other red-state populists have built. Still, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at this kind of revisionism. Dishonesty knows no bounds when irrelevance and rejection is in the air.

To be sure, I go after Dobbs for his refusal to comprehensively address immigration in a way that actually deals honestly with the problem. He prefers to use the issue as a crude cultural bludgeon, instead of connecting it to all the other economic issues he focuses on. Similarly, I chide him for repeating some of the most tired right-wing stereotypes about the media.

But all in all, there is no denying that if Democrats want to hold a governing majority for the foreseeable future, they cannot continue to deny the populist outrage seething all over the country and highlighted by Dobbs book. They cannot continue to listen only to the former Clintonites now on K Street. They cannot continue to listen only to executives on Wall Street. They cannot continue to openly brag about how close they are to corporate lobbyists. They must see election 2006 for what it was: a mandate for economic populism and a battle cry against the hostile takeover of our government and against the War on the Middle Class.

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http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/12/books/review/Sirota.t.html

New York Times – November 12, 2006

Pinstriped Populist

Review of Lou Dobbs’ War on the Middle Class by David Sirota

The Korean War is known by many as “the forgotten war” — a conflict ignored because of its proximity to other wars. But there is a difference between a war that is forgotten and one that is deliberately ignored even as it rages in our midst. That kind of war is the subject of Lou Dobbs’s fist-pounding new book, “War on the Middle Class,” which exposes a vicious economic battle being waged against the vast majority of Americans.

Dobbs seems an unlikely general to lead this fight. A financial journalist, he was the longtime anchor of CNN’s “Moneyline,” where, as The Wall Street Journal noted, “his opinions generally were seen as unabashedly pro-business.”

That changed when Dobbs returned after a two-year hiatus from CNN and revealed a new personality: the pinstriped populist. His current program, “Lou Dobbs Tonight” (on which I have been a guest), follows his book’s central thesis: “Our political, business and academic elites are waging an outright war on Americans.”

He examines this economic war in chapters on wages, corruption, trade, outsourcing, immigration and health care, showing how moneyed interests devise policies that harm the public, and offering up his own set of solutions.

For Dobbs, there are no sacred cows. Sometimes his zeal runs too hot, as when he attacks religious organizations that favor amnesty for illegal immigrants with the same fire he unleashes on corporate front groups that support illegal immigration because it provides cheap labor. But more often he is right on target, as when he expertly skewers a health care system riddled by profiteering.

The book is driven by Dobbs’s seething yet remarkably matter-of-fact style. His refreshing prose, like his on-air persona, combine
s seemingly unmixable ingredients — one part Ted Koppel authority, one part Bill O’Reilly bluster and one part Howard Beale “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” outrage.

Occasionally Dobbs seems unwilling to risk his tough image by exploring difficult issues. For example, he neglects to go beyond simple law-and-order rhetoric about border security and ask why so many Mexicans risk their lives attempting to immigrate illegally to our country in the first place.

While our border security does need improvement, illegal immigration is a result of America’s having an impoverished country at its southern border and a trade policy that has helped push 19 million more Mexicans into poverty over the last two decades. Many Mexicans who illegally cross the border are motivated not by nefarious criminal intent but by sheer economic desperation. Except for a few fleeting mentions, Dobbs avoids connecting these issues in pursuit of a serious fix. Why? Maybe he knows that the real solution includes both improving border security and building Mexico’s economy — and that may be a save-the-world message far less appealing to his followers than his usual tough-on-crime mantra.

Dobbs also peddles a few hackneyed right-wing talking points. For instance, he excoriates the news media as “liberal.” This charge comes in a chapter that berates reporters for refusing to cover economic issues from what would generally be considered a more working-class, “liberal” perspective.

But then, that is probably one of his book’s most important, if unstated, points: cultural liberalism focusing on social issues that have only varying degrees of support among the general population is far different from full-throated Dobbs-style economic populism.

It is undeniable that aside from Dobbs and a few politicians, America’s political debate is almost entirely devoid of economic populists. “War on the Middle Class” confronts this problem head-on — and thanks to Dobbs’s passion and charisma, it succeeds in sounding an alarm that cannot be ignored.

David Sirota is a Democratic strategist and the author of “Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government — and How We Take It Back.”