The group Third Way got sternly rebuked for its scurrilous attack on Elizabeth Warren, by several of its honorary co-chairs among others. But it would be a shame if the conversation stopped there. The real issue here is not Warren, but rather economic populism as a legitimate political strategy for progressives. Third Way says it isn’t one; it couldn’t be more wrong.
Start with how Americans feel about inequality today. In a newly released Bloomberg poll, by 64–33 percent they endorsed the idea that the country no longer offers everyone an equal chance to get ahead. In the same poll, by 68–28 percent, they said the income gap between rich and poor is growing. And Americans overwhelmingly believe these trends are bad for the country.
So progressives are on firm ground when they denounce these trends and pledge to address them by overwhelmingly popular measures like raising the minimum wage, creating jobs through infrastructure spending, safeguarding Medicare, and expanding Social Security. Third Way, by contrast, suggests that progressives rally around massively unpopular policies like cutting Social Security and Medicare to address a non-existent fiscal crisis. To say this is bad advice is to considerably understate the case.
Even worse is Third Way’s insistence that progressives should never utter a discouraging word about big banks or the one percent. This is stupefyingly poor advice — as Judd Legum and Adam Peck have shown here, these policies are extremely popular.
But it’s about more than just the polling numbers on individual policies. Polling consistently shows that one of the biggest obstacles to building support for government action is the perception that government favors the wealthy and corporations, not the middle class. And topping Americans’ list of economic goals is the simple idea that the economy should work for everyone, not just the one percent and CEOs. It would be political malpractice not to acknowledge these sentiments and use them to promote a conversation about who government serves — far better turf for progressives than conservatives’ preferred debate about the size of government.
So going into 2014, progressives should intensify their advocacy for the 99 percent and be unafraid to link their campaigns and policies to a broad economic populism. This is their great weapon in a campaign season where the GOP hopes to put Democrats on permanent defense through their relentless attacks on Obamacare. But the best defense is a good offense, and a sturdy economic populism is Democrats’ best bet. With such an approach, combined with an economy that finally seems to be getting into gear, Democrats have an excellent chance of beating back the GOP’s bid for unified control of Congress, not to mention setting themselves up for a successful election in 2016.