Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Where is the Populist Angst?

We’re deep in a Great Recession.  The haves seem to be doing well though (Google profit up, MasterCard up, Mobil skyrocketing, Apple up, Microsoft up).  And the have nots not so much. (Unemployment, etc)  Yet the only credible populist uprising, namely the Tea Party, is squarely pointed against government, and not the elite.  In most historical cases, government has been the vehicle OF populism, not its enemy.  Unions, trust busting, regulation.  So what happened?  Here’s three thoughts.

1) The link between unemployment and Wall Street was never really connected.  I think there’s a couple reasons for this.  First is that today’s Wall Street business are not necessarily its employers.  Big banks may run the economy, but their tentacles are so far and wide it’s hard to connect a local bank or employer shutting down with the power plays in Manhattan.  In the past, if big businesses were profitable and shutting down factories towns felt it directly.   Now, faults are so spread out – maybe it was globalism, education, immigration – that the direct cause and effect is hard to establish.  And, small town Joe probably has money in some 401K tied to one of these companies or he’s impressed with its latest product so how can he be angry at these big businesses?

2) The Democrats are in power, so the zealots are on the right (and they’re the party of businesses).  If it were the other way around, Democrats could yell class war and point the finger at the cozy relationship between business and Republicans.  But it was Democrats who supported TARP in order to save the economy. And Democrats who worked with big businesses to craft Finance and Health Care legislation. It’s hard to yell at the fox in your coop when you’re working with him to build the fence.

3) We’re ever more a diverse fractious nation.  An educated middle manager who loses his/her job to outsourcing probably finds it pretty difficult to relate to a burger flipping minimum wage earner who also lost his/her job to outsourcing because all of the customers lost their jobs.  Maybe at one time we all watched the same television at 8pm, but now we’re flipping through a million forms of media.

So here we are.  Angry but not sure who to be angry at.  Leadership that can’t be angry.  And not sure if our neighbor is angry at the same thing.  Profits rolling in and people unemployed.

Ariana Huffington would like to kick off a populist movement, her book and blog community are trying to stir up the pot.

But who knows, maybe a lack of populism is a good thing?  At least we’re not rioting in the streets. 

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