This Populist Moment

Last week, Barack Obama got beaten up on social media and called out by the press for accepting a $400,000 speaking fee from a Wall Street firm Cantor and Fitzgerald.  It was the day’s major kerfuffle, the non-Trump story of the week, and reactions to it by many of my smart, well reasoned friends surprised me somewhat.

They began with the stance that it simply wasn’t an issue.  Obama’s a private citizen now, so who cares? But lots of people did care.  When the story picked up steam despite their protestations, my friends then blamed the loony left for fabricating the issue, launching a general assault on fringe elements of the Democratic party and a firm defense of sensible liberal or centrist (depending on the friend) outlooks.  But of course it wasn’t just the left.  The right predictably piled on as well, without any prompting from the left.  The story also transcended the partisan divide as the centrist press ran with it.  Christ, even the BBC, the vanilla pudding of international news, covered it.

In the end, the defense of Obama that gained the most traction among my friends, and to some degree in the national media, was a racial analysis.  Some claimed that this brouhaha was another example of white people shaming a black man for earning a paycheck, the imposition of a racial double standard since white politicians and ex-politicians do this kind of thing all time.

This needs to be reckoned with.  Obama was always held to a higher standard, precisely because he was black.  He was always subjected to intense racism.  And the racist backlash to his presidency, as much as anything else, helps explain Trump’s victory.  So was this just another example of that racial double standard?  It’s an important question to ask.

In the end, I don’t think it was.  Which is not to say that Obama is no longer subject to racism and double standards; he obviously is.  And those issues are still at play here, but I don’t believe they’re the driving force.  Because to mark race as the reason for a vast public outcry against his acceptance of money is to ignore the most salient point: where the money came from.

People are not upset that he made money.  Private citizen Obama collecting a $400,000 speaking fee doesn’t violate anyone’s principles, even racist assholes’.  Rather, the problem is that he very specifically took money from Wall Street.  The proof is clear: There wasn’t nearly as much griping when he signed a $20,000,000 book deal last month.

Why did that eight-figure windfall spark nowhere near the outrage this five-figure fee did?  Because no one’s worried that publishing money has corrupted Washington.  No one’s bitter about the book industry crippling the U.S. economy ten years ago, only to reap a massive bailout from taxpayers, and now running amok again.  And thus, virtually no criticism of twenty-million to publish what will probably be the kind of bland, self-serving memoir that every ex-president of late has authored.  But $400,000 from Wall Street is different, if for no other reason than the general public now views Wall Street differently than it used to.

Why did Obama take the speaking fee?  Should he have?  Should people be upset about it?  None of those questions interest me.   Rather, I believe the issue worth considering is: Why exactly did so many people get upset about it?

That question speaks to the current political moment, which Obama seems to have misread, much as the Democratic Party mainstream he represents has been doing for over a year now.
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I have an arms length relationship to the left.  While I don’t count myself among their ranks, I do agree with many of their critiques and analyses.  Yet I can’t help but shake my head when leftists occasionally go tone deaf on matters of race, gender, and sexuality, or worse yet, are occasionally hostile towards “identity politics,” dismissing them as an exasperating distraction from the almighty class analysis.  Not all leftists, of course.  Many are keenly aware of racial (and other non-economic social) problems and dynamics.  But in general, the left has a bad habit of treating racial analysis as some kind of annoying younger sibling.  And as an American historian with a research focus on Indigenous histories, that kind of economic determinism and marginalization of race simply doesn’t cut it for me.  Indeed, it sometimes drives me a little nuts.

I argue with them about it, and I agree with minority critiques of leftists who privilege class analysis over other analyses.  I also recognize that some leftist critiques of Obama’s Wall Street payday are being made with a blind spot for race.  But not all of them.  Because hating on Wall Street is no longer just a leftist past time.  It wasn’t simply leftists screaming about Obama’s Wall Street dalliance.  It was many people from all over the spectrum who are now comfortable voicing what not too long ago were strictly leftists critiques.

The economic collapse of the last decade unleashed something here and around the globe.  There is a current of discontent circumnavigating the developed world and beyond.  The most obvious and disturbing manifestation of this anger and fear is the rise of right wing nationalism in the United States and Europe.  But that’s not all there is.  In this age of economic malaise and austerity remedies, the leftist critique of neo-liberal capitalism has found a surprisingly wide audience.  Together, these competing yet oddly complementary right- and left-wing impulses signal the return of the populist moment.

American populism reached its first zenith during the 1890s, a reaction to the rise of big business and the violent undulations of unregulated capitalism.  As millions of small farmers and tradespeople lost their economic independence and were sucked into the brutal, exploitative industrial economy, angry citizens derided the new corporations as undemocratic and antithetical to the American way.  Large railroad companies were a popular target of outrage, especially for farmers.  Individual robber barons like John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt also incited all levels of vitriol.  But the most potent symbol stirring the raging populist pot was the dreaded financial sector: bankers and Wall Street financiers like J.P. Morgan and Jay Gould, whom they lambasted as “non-producers,” parasites leaching off the hard work of honest Americans.  Reveling in such rhetoric, the People’s (a.k.a. Populist) Party ran political candidates on a decidedly socialist platform, even if they didn’t call themselves socialists.  Farmers across America lined up to support leftist proposals such as industrial cooperatives, the federal confiscation of “excess” land from corporations, and government-owned alternatives to private banks.

Today’s political landscape is, in some ways, the return of that moment.  Average Americans are pissed at Wall Street.

One of the most interesting elements of American populism is an earnest dislike and even outright hostility towards bankers and Wall Street.  Today, as was the case in the late 19th century, that antipathy cannot be neatly apportioned along the left-right axis.  Normally, the left is a marginal presence in U.S. politics and boasts a monopoly on banker-bashing while the right celebrates the fruits of capitalism.  But these are not “normal” times.  In a populist moment, frustration and anger are pervasive and get exhibited in surprising ways.

All of a sudden, the right can complain about capitalism too.

That’s exactly what Donald Trump did during his massive, right wing campaign rallies when he promised to “drain the swamp.”  The fact that he’s a lying sack of shit (or maybe just an incoherent, selfish mess) who’s practically handing over the White House to the financial industry is a bit besides the point.  He loudly touted an anti-Wall Street message, and his right wing base roared their approval.  That, as much as anything else, illustrates our current populist climate.  Trump’s triumph is not a clear cut victory for the right.  Rather, it is a scatter blast statement of right-leaning populism.  Thus, the Trumpist moment does not reflect upon and influence only the GOP.   It reflects the nation as a whole.  It affects both parties.

Most of the time, the center holds, or even dominates American politics.  During centrist epochs, many politicians simply pay lip service to, or even ignore, both the right and the left.  Under normal circumstances, a politician might pander to the left or right during the primaries, but then run frantically back to the center once the general election is underway; the cherished center, that site of political stability where most voters sit comfortably under normal circumstances.  But these are not normal times.  The center has fallen away.  This is a moment of populist extremism.  The two ends reach out for each other.

The issues that resonate most are precisely the issues the left and right agree on.
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In this populist moment, “reasonable” can be a moving target, and not because of the old, misplaced stereotype that populists are hysterically irrational.  Rather, a fuzzy definition of “reasonable” is symptomatic of populism, not causal.

Just two years ago, it was unreasonable in mainstream discourse to be center-left; anything left of center was “radical.”  Bernie Sanders was marginal figure from a little state, officially independent, somewhat isolated, and considered by many to be “unreasonable.”  His socialist platform was largely laughed at and dismissed, his legislative record unimpressive at best.  But the ascent of populism represents a substantial shift in American attitudes about the economy and politics.  Things that seemed crazy to most Americans just a few years ago are now deemed within reason.

Amid the tidal shift of emerging populism, a septuagenarian Jewish socialist almost won the Democratic presidential nomination despite having to challenge a longstanding heir apparent and facing complete opposition from the party’s institutional forces.  At the same time, a sexist, racist, egomaniacal reality TV star became president.

Both of them railed against Goldman-Sachs.

The populist reshaping of American politics began in earnest eight years ago when the Tea Party radicalized the American right in reaction to a crippled economy and amid the sudden arrival of a black president.  In some ways it was a natural fit for the Republicans.  Ever since the Reagan Revolution, the Republican Party has been excellent at responding to its constituents, consistently moving rightward.  I find that to be a rather troubling development, but there’s no denying the successes the GOP has reaped from that strategy even as the nation’s ongoing demographic shifts work against them.  But this wasn’t a measured movement to the right, it was a slingshot, and even the Grand Old Party got steam rolled by the recent populist tidal wave, unable to prevent outsider and former Democrat Donald Trump from running amok through their primaries.  Now they’re trying to hold a tiger by the tail.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has stubbornly clung to its Clintonian center, resisting the obvious leftward movement engulfing its rank and file.  The initial failure was a reticence to embrace Occupy Wall Street and the influential social movement it spawned.  No matter.  “Unreasonable” people like Sanders and his legion of supporters eventually pushed the Democratic voters away from the center.  Now it’s the left’s turn to help reshape the national discourse.  Today, leftist ideas are reasonable, even on the right.

With Democratic voters shifting left, and Republican voters shifting right, many politicians need to respond; they cannot simply remain in the center.  Hilary Clinton learned that the hard way.  As the definition of “reasonable” stretches out to both directions, the dead center loses gravity.

During the populist moment, the center does not get re-branded as unreasonable.  It just gets ignored.
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Of course former president Barack Obama playing footsie with Wall Street does not deserve to be the major story it turned into.  It’s nothing new on at least two levels: as president Obama was very comfortable letting Wall Street wield tremendous influence in his administration; and his recent acceptance of the speaking fee is simply the kind of unseemly shit that many politicians do once they leave office.  Economically, he was a center-right president, and now he’s behaving likes lots of other “reasonable” former office-holders.

But that logic is also detached from the reality of this populist moment for at least two reasons.  First off, Obama’s not just any former politician. In the aftermath of Clinton’s loss, he remains the national face of his party.  This is not exactly a former state representative from Rhode Island we’re talking about.  He will never fly under the radar.  Plus, he continued to engaged the political process to a remarkable degree during his early retirement, and can thus be fairly defined as an active politician, just not an elected one.

Beyond that, however, Obama’s fee became a major story because it is the perfect example of Democrats not following political momentum, of not reading the tea leaves, of continuing to wallow in the center.  And railing against Trump’s hypocrisies doesn’t change any of that; Trump successfully crafted a populist message that, at least for the time being, buys him substantial leeway with his supporters.  Few major Democrats other than Sanders have yet to craft a left wing version of that message, so instead of goodwill, it is merely resentment that builds among the Democratic base.

In this populist moment, the center has fallen away.  It won’t last forever, but for now the Democrats won’t get anywhere by continuing to frame themselves as the party of the center.  They need to effectively counter the GOP’s far right turn with their own turn to the left.  Clinton refused to do it, and she paid the price.

This isn’t 2008 anymore, much less 1992.  Obama’s decision to take easy Wall Street money defies the current zeitgeist, ergo the outrage, whether warranted or not.  In 2017, politics is no longer about making a rational argument to the public; quite frankly, I don’t know that it ever was.  But it is even less so now than it was just a few years ago.  That should be painfully obvious to anyone residing in the shadow of Donald Trump.   More than ever, politics is about controlling the narrative and stoking the fire.

Obama lost on this one, and so too, by extension, did his party, which continues to sit in the sinking center, unable or unwilling to respond to a changing electorate.  Trying to besmirch these developments as “unreasonable” is itself an unreasonable act that ignores America’s new political reality.  It won’t last forever, and maybe not even for much longer.  But Donald Trump is the president, Bernie Sanders is the nation’s most popular elected Democrat, and this is the return of America’s populist moment.

This essay was originally published at 3 Quarks Daily.

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