Paternalistic Populism

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What's the opposite of "libertarian populism"?

"Libertarian populism" is the name for the leading idea that has emerged for the reform of the Republican Party's political strategy. You can think of it as a reaction against Romneyism: instead of writing off the "47%" with lower incomes who are the targets of government largesse, the idea is to appeal to these people and try to convince them that they, too, will benefit from free markets and smaller government.

Jonathan Chait notes the rapid rise of this strategy.

"The Republican postelection ideological repositioning project has chugged along fitfully and without satisfaction until just recently, when a solution struck with the blinding force of revelation. The concept is to define the Republican Party as the populist opposition to the Obama administration. Obama, goes this line of reasoning, is not the advocate of the people he puts himself forward as but the defender of bien-pensant elites. Republicans are--or should be--the party of stripping the elites of their government favors.

"Timothy Carney and Ben Domenech have called this notion 'libertarian populism.' Ross Douthat, after initially offering a measured critique, has formulated his own version, which aspires to define the GOP as the 'country party,' in contrast to the Democrats as the 'court party.' Paul Ryan adviser Yuval Levin takes Douthat's concept as tablets from Mount Sinai, urging co-partisans far and wide to heed its wisdom. In a sign of the speed with which this new message has conquered the party, Ryan plucked it for his official response to Obama's economic speech."

Chait then offers his scathing critique of the supposed "self-deception" behind this approach.

"But the main driver of inequality today is the marketplace, and the main bulwark against that inequality is the federal government. The federal government disproportionately taxes the rich, and it disproportionately spends on the poor. Our government redistributes less from rich to poor than do most other advanced countries, but it does redistribute....

"The main thrust of American politics is fairly simple: Democrats want to redistribute resources downward, while Republicans don't. The main battles of the Obama era have been over Obama's plans to raise taxes on the rich and offer more generous benefits to the non-rich. The 'crumbs' for the working class are, in fact, the main part of the Democrats' domestic agenda.

"Meanwhile, opposition to redistribution is the defining feature of the Republican Party."

Well, I'm glad he made it simple for us. But I'm afraid Chait may have just nominated himself for a Bimbo Award, given for a denial that reinforces the very thing it's supposed to be denying. When he writes that the "main part" of the Democrats' agenda is to throw "crumbs" to the working class, he may be quoting someone else--but it gets a little too close to the truth.  Could you come up with a more condescending, paternalistic way of describing your own agenda? This isn't just the "court party." It's the Marie Antoinette, let-them-eat-cake party.

But I suppose this kind of inadvertent admission is going to slip from time to time, because if you read Chait's piece, you realize that this really is what the American left has to offer as its "populist" program. I recently analyzed Paul Krugman's argument against "libertarian populism" and concluded that he, too, "assumes that the only thing anyone could possibly have to offer to the poor or to racial minorities is welfare payments." Did Chait talk about "self-deception"? Folks like Chait and Krugman fancy themselves as champions of the "working class"--whom they view as hopeless losers who couldn't possibly make it through life without the help of a benevolent Washington, DC, elite.

So if you ask what is the opposite of the right's new "libertarian populist" agenda, Jonathan Chait demonstrates the answer: paternalistic populism.

And that's where Chait's "simplified" summary of American politics is so revealing. It is revealing because of what it leaves out. In his world, there are only handouts to the poor or no handouts to the poor. He cannot even admit the existence of the actual "libertarian populist" agenda: making it easier for people to rise by their own effort and to avoid dependence on government.

Here's an example of the difference between what the free market has to offer the poor versus what the paternalistic left has to offer them: ObamaCare's de facto ban on full-time employment for low-income workers, by means of an employer mandate that imposes a prohibitive tax on hiring unskilled labor for more than 29 hours a week. As I observed, "For those starting at the bottom, the very first step up the economic ladder is to go from part-time employee to full-time employee. ObamaCare has just cut off that rung." The function of free-market "populism" is to restore those rungs.

It's an agenda that tells the American people they can make it on their own and don't need to wait around for the entitlement state to throw them some crumbs.


Robert Tracinski is senior writer for The Federalist and editor of The Tracinski Letter.

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