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The Need for Class-Aspiration Populism

By Ruy Teixeira

(Note: this is a cross-post from the TPM Cafe Book Club discussion of David Sirota's new book, Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government--and How We Take It Back. Check out the whole discussion if you can--it's quite interesting.)

David Sirota’s new book offers a no-holds-barred polemic that makes two basic points: (1) our entire political-economic system has been taken over by Big Money (hence, the "hostile takeover" referenced in his book title); and (2) therefore progressives’ entire political fight must be against Big Money. As a corollary to his main points, those who doubt in any way the total truth of point (1) or who believe progressive political strategy must encompass more than point (2) are part of the problem, not the solution.

That includes, of course, essentially all of today’s Republican party, but also huge swathes of today’s Democratic party, including most elected officials, who have been hopelessly corrupted by the system.

Sirota’s argument is as close as you’ll get anywhere to a "pure populist" perspective on what’s wrong with today’s system and what we need to do to change it. And he certainly provides a wealth of useful, if sometimes one-sided, information about how and where big money interests have, in fact, gamed the system to their benefit.

We live in an era where such information is not hard to come by. Real abuses are taking place and Sirota documents many of them. Whether this amounts to a hostile takeover is debatable, since Big Money has always had a lot of influence on the system, including in eras of American history where its influence was just as pervasive as it is now.

But no matter. The problem he identifies is real and part of what progressives should be about is opposing those abuses and attempting to reform the system so they don’t occur (or, at any rate, occur with far less regularity).

That’s fine, as far as it goes. The difficulty, however, is that Sirota insists that’s pretty much all there is to it: learn the Truth about your interests versus Big Money’s (take the "red pill" in his Matrix-derived formulation) and start fighting. It’s that simple.

But it isn’t. Sirota’s class-interest populism fundamentally misreads the way the average American sees the economy and the system. As economist Stephen Rose points out in a useful new paper, "The Trouble with Class-Interest Populism", the typical American–whether you choose to call him/her "middle class" or "working class" is simply not poor enough to be an unambiguous beneficiary of government action. Instead, their beefs with the system tend to be aspirational–that is, they’re not rising far enough fast enough and the difficulties of doing so are far greater than they’d like.

But with all that, they remain fundamentally optimistic. They do not see themselves as losers and a politics that mostly treats them as such is likely to be ineffective. Indeed, when it comes to their own individual and family situations, most people say that they are succeeding (and expect their kids to succeed), thanks to their hard work and personal sacrifice in the face of great obstacles. This allows them to tell a story where they and their families are the heroes and where their difficulties redound to their credit. Consider these data from the New York Times poll on class in America in March, 2005.

In that poll, 66 percent said they are better off than their parents were at comparable ages, compared to 20 percent who say they are doing about the same and 13 percent who say they are doing worse. And 56 percent of parents believe their children will lead better lives, while 18 percent say the same and 22 percent say worse.

Moreover, 70 percent said they had already attained the American Dream or would attain it in their lifetimes. When asked to rate themselves on a 10 point scale from extremely poor (1) to extremely rich (10), both for now and in ten years, 62 percent rated themselves between poor and middle class (1 to 5) now, but 60 percent said they would be between middle class and wealthy (6 to 10) within ten years.

Respondents to the survey also remained optimistic about class mobility. Eighty-two percent described themselves as working class, middle class or lower class, but an amazing 45 percent believed it was very or somewhat likely that they would become wealthy in the future. Moreover, 80 percent said it’s still possible to start out poor in this country, work hard, and become rich. These findings are consistent with polls taken over many decades that show Americans as great believers in, and supporters of, class mobility.

So does that mean giving up on populism, in general, or opposing the way Big Money unfairly games and manipulates the system? No, but it does mean if you want to reach the typical American, you need to couch your populism in aspirational terms, not just or even mostly in how their interests are being betrayed by Big Money. They may nod in agreement with the point that their interests and Big Money’s are different, but what they want to really know is: how can you help them get ahead?

Answer that, and you might not even need the red pill.