Economic populism is crucial this year

Posted on May 27, 2014

2014 is not a year for subtlety. Pollsters expect older, whiter, more conservative Americans to show up at the polls in November while younger voters and people of color, who are more likely to support progressives, are expected to stay away. Progressives need to siphon off some of the white working class vote and the only way to do that is to articulate a strong populist message—explicitly pointing a finger at economic wrongdoing by the rich.

A recent Hart Research poll illustrates the situation. Given a choice between a Republican who says s/he will “grow the economy” and a Democrat who say s/he will “make the economy work for us,” swing voters favor the Republican by 55-to-45 percent. But with the addition of a few words—if the Democrat says s/he will “make the economy work for us, not just the wealthy”—swing voters favor the Democrat by 61-to-39 percent. Those four words switch favorability by 32 points! Wow! But why?

Average Americans are in financial misery. They don’t understand economics. They certainly don’t understand Keynesian countercyclical spending. But they strongly believe that the wealthy are a big part of the problem. They think the economic game has been rigged to favor Wall Street over Main Street. And of course, they are right.

Using populist arguments—assigning blame to the rich and powerful—is essential in a low-turnout election. As Hart Research explains:

Of particular interest in the poll are the groups of voters in which Democrats make the largest gains when they use the populist formulation. Significantly, it is among the more conservative and difficult to reach groups of swing voters where a populist message provides the greatest lift. Democrats gain 18 points with women, but 42 points among men, and gain 19 points with voters under 50 compared with 44 points among voters over 50. And Democrats make especially large gains (+39) with swing voters who are planning to vote Republican in this year’s Congressional elections.

We are not suggesting that “not just the wealthy” is a magic phrase. There is actually much better language to contrast the rich from the rest of us on progressive websites. Pollster Celinda Lake also offers a great presentation about a populist economic platform on her website here.

The populist argument argument isn’t just good politics, it is true. The Forbes 400 richest Americans—just 400 people—now own more than the combined net worth of half of all Americans. The richest five percent of Americans own nearly two-thirds of all the combined wealth in our country—stocks, bonds, businesses, real estate, cars, jewelry. When we raise the minimum wage or otherwise put money into the hands of working Americans, they spend it and stimulate the economy. In an economic downturn, when we divert that money into the hands of the rich—as we have been doing—the economy stagnates.

Economic populism provides a powerful wedge issue that progressives can use against the right wing. The key to using wedge issues isn’t the fact that the voters are on our side, it’s that our opponents are stuck advocating a very unpopular position. We have to make them defend their tax breaks, bailouts, and other policies that rig the system for the rich. We need to raise these issues again and again. And if they start crying about “class warfare,” just smile, because that means our truthful arguments are working.