A WEEK or so ago America was seized by a spasm of fury over the bonuses paid to executives at AIG, a troubled insurance company. Across the country Americans were enraged that people who had helped to cause the financial meltdown were being rewarded for their incompetence. And Washington responded in kind.
Congressmen queued up before the television cameras to tell everybody how upset they were. Larry Summers, the president’s chief economic adviser, described the bonuses as “outrageous”. Even Barack Obama tried to drop his ultra-cool persona to say how “angry” he was. The House voted overwhelmingly to impose a 90% tax on such bonuses.
The media responded to the storm of outrage by producing a stream of articles on American populism—the political disposition that damns established institutions, from Wall Street to Washington, and tries to return power to “the people”. Newsweek devoted almost an entire issue to the subject.
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But no sooner was the ink dry on these articles than the populist storm seemed to blow itself out. Many of the journalists who had been fanning the flames of anger attended a white-tie Gridiron Dinner in Washington on March 21st to perform silly song-and-dance routines. Wall Street rallied two days later when the treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, published his plan to tackle toxic assets held by banks. Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, suggests that bonus legislation “may not be necessary” now that 15 of the top 20 “bonus babies” at AIG have agreed to give their bonuses back.
Was the fuss over AIG a sign of a new populist mood in America? Or was it just a storm in a teacup? It is hard to answer this question in a country in which anger is a form of entertainment and where the political parties have turned partisanship into a fine art. Television personalities such as Bill O’Reilly are always angry about something or other. Many of the politicians who proclaimed their outrage at the “malefactors of great wealth” are delighted to take campaign contributions from the very same malefactors.
But, for all that, there are good reasons for taking the resurgence of populism seriously. One is the breadth of the discontent in the country. Left-wingers complain that Mr Obama is selling out his supporters in order to rescue irresponsible financial institutions. Right-wingers worry that he is using taxpayers’ money to save people from the consequences of their own profligacy. This fear has plenty of resonance outside the world of political enthusiasts: a recent Harris poll shows that 85% of Americans believe that big companies have too much influence on politicians and policymakers.
Another factor is the size of the slump. America has lost almost 2m jobs in the past three months. The number of job openings is down 31% from a year ago. Consumer confidence is falling on all fronts. Mortgage delinquencies are at a record high. The future of attempts to stimulate the global economy is also in jeopardy: European leaders have implied that they will oppose pressure from Americans and Chinese to produce their own stimulus programme at the forthcoming G20 meeting.
America may be witnessing the return of an old-fashioned version of populism, driven by economic anxiety and directed at economic interests. The people who gave the name to “populism” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were worried about a prolonged agricultural depression and furious at the vested interests in Wall Street and Washington who, they thought, were responsible for that depression. Populists accused the elites of turning America into a land of “tramps and millionaires”.
This brand of populism went underground during the boom years, but Franklin Roosevelt revived it during the Depression. In one of his most passionate speeches, in 1936, he attacked the “economic royalists” of big business and the Republican Party.
In the 1960s economic populism was trumped by cultural populism. The Republican Party championed the interests of the “silent majority” against bra-burning feminists, civil-rights activists and effete liberals who were more interested in protecting the rights of criminals than preserving law and order. The Democrats made desultory attempts to revive economic populism in 2000 and in 2004: Al Gore campaigned for “the people against the powerful” and John Kerry denounced outsourcing companies. But this proved to be no match for the Republicans’ cultural populism. Now economic populism is returning to the heart of American politics.
This economic populism is made particularly potent by the long-term decline of faith in American institutions. The General Social Survey has been polling Americans about their confidence in major institutions (among other things) since 1972. The preliminary data for 2008 show a marked drop in confidence in every American institution since 2000 except military ones and education. The proportion of people expressing “a great deal of confidence” fell from 30% in 2000 to 16% in 2008 for big business, from 30% to 19% for banks, from 29% to 20% for organised religion, from 14% to 11% for the executive branch and from 13% to 11% for Congress. It was up, to 52%, for the armed services. These figures are the stuff that nasty movements are made of.
Populism poses serious problems for both political parties, not least because the very institutions which they spend their lives squabbling over are some of the least respected in the country, just above television and the press. The danger for Mr Obama and the ruling Democrats is that the administration is relying heavily on private investors and Wall Street banks to implement its various rescue plans. This inevitably means rewarding some of the people who were responsible for the crisis. The president hopes that his budget will channel destructive anger into support for his policies. But he could also find his administration blown off-course or even swept aside by popular outrage.