As Mid-Term Election Nears, Get Ready for GOP Populist Pitch

Roger Bybee

As we move into 2010, toward November’s mid-term congressional elections, things don’t exactly look rosy for labor’s political program.

Progress on genuine healthcare reform and the Employee Free Choice Act has hardly been encouraging, despite the most progressive president in nearly half a century, a suposedly veto-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate, and a whopping 257-178 majority in the House. So what will happen to labor’s program if Democrats lose dozens of seats this November?

Democratic wisemen like Robert Shrum say don’t worry, assuring us that the Republican Party is simply the party of No,” and suffers from severe fractiousness among right-wing elements (like the Tea Bag rally denizens) that alienate young people, independents, and suburban moderates. The fact that the tea baggers’ mood of sustained outrage at the government resonates with a broad swath of people — without regard to specific programs, just the widespread sense of pain among poor and working people — is untroubling to the voices of conventional wisdom.

But Dr. Marcia Angell of Harvard Medical School offered a far more insightufl diagnosis of tthe frustration behind the Tea Bag phenomenon and why it has commanded attention:

I think people are a worried about a loss of equity in their homes, a loss in value of their retirement funds, job security and unemployment, and the fragility of health insurance…. I think Americans are suffering. There’s a sort of free-floating anger and distress…there’s a kind of inchoate rage, and there’s almost nothing coherent about it.

But this blind, formless rage may find a vulnerable target with the Democrats’ approach to healthcare. A fundamental weakness remains with the basic premise of the Democratic approach – subsidizing insurers so Americans can buy defective and inadequate policies that will still remain unaffordable. As former Cigna executive Wendell Potter and others have warned, this approach risks igniting a vast popular backlash against the Democrats.


Specifically, the Democratic healthcare strategy embodies the worst stereotype of Big Government — compelling people to buy a defective product — with the worst of Big Business’s greed and ability to grab government subsidies. This will create an inviting target for Republicans bright enough to recognize this glaring weakness and duplicitous enough to proclaim that they intend to crack down on major corporation along with Big Government.

Enter Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan — boyishly handsome, unfailingly polite, and politically shrewd. Ryan, a native of Janesville, Wisc., which is still reeling from the effects of a devastating GM shutdown, represents a southeastern Wisconsin district wracked by unemployment and major plant closings from one end of the district to the other.


But Ryan has managed to incorporate criticism of Chrysler’s move of jobs from Kenosha, Wisc., to Mexico, along with his more conventional anti-government pitch.

While Ryan has been outranked and upstaged by GOP leaders like the perma-tanned Minority Leader John Boehner and the dazed Eric Cantor, his time may soon be coming soon.

As Thomas Frank notes, Ryan is working on concocting a blend of populism that will combine sharp but disingenuous criticism of Big Business with an attack on the real target, government’s potential cpaacity to serve as the collective voice of the people.

The ever-artful Ryan penned a December Forbes article titled provocatively, Down with Big Business.” As Frank relates,

The tone Mr. Ryan takes in his Forbes article makes him sound like the Jacobin of Janesville. He savages crony capitalism,” pausing to note the resentment” it is inspiring.

He depicts the Troubled Asset Relief Program, better known as TARP, as a well-intentioned measure that has become an ad hoc, opaque slush fund for large institutions that are able to influence the Treasury Department’s investment decisions behind-the-scenes.” [Ryan voted for the TARP].

He complains about lobbying, offers the obligatory denunciation of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, and bemoans the economic disasters befalling small companies while the rescued banks enjoy record profits.”

….But the problem seems not to be that government made poor decisions over the past year; it’s that government made any decisions at all. Government, in Mr. Ryan’s view, is alternately the tool and the terror of big business, doing one firm’s bidding as it crushes another one.

The solution is to get government out of the game altogether, and Mr. Ryan fondly recalls the great deregulatory campaigns of the past leaving out the embarrassing story of how he and his colleagues overturned Glass-Steagall and then watched the banking industry explode in a fireball of freedom.

Like Newt Gingrich and his pollster pal Frank Luntz in 1994, who developed the catchphrase Contract with America,” (which had a strong, sensible populist tone, while its content was hard-Right economics), Ryan is trying to fashion a new version of Republican politics that simultaneously taps resentment against corporate greed and arrogance with resentment against Big Government’s failure to stand with the little people.


All that will matter will be the sincerity of the emotion, and if Mr. Ryan’s essay is any indication, this is a job Republicans can do as well as any Code Pink activist,” Frank states.

However, having seen Ryan’s impact from a closer angle, we should recognize that Ryan is absolutely superb at projecting sincerity even when he means it least. If Ryan helps the Republicans to re-formulate their message, the now-smug Democrats may be licking some severe wounds after Election Day 2010.

As Rich Trumka has just warned, the Democrats seem to be inviting a
repeat of 1994“ — when working-class voters stayed home or were swayed by Gingrich’s pseudo-populism.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
Subscribe and Save 59%

Less than $2.00 an issue