Popularism = Populism = Soak the Rich *and* Spread it Out Thin

For some reason in this time of crisis both foreign and domestic, I feel the need to remind Angrybear readers of a very simple stylized fact: If the income tax is constitutional and the top rate is less than 69% then non-incumbent Democratic candidates for President have won if and only if they promise to increase taxes on the rich and cut taxes for everyone else. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden did that (and Obama and Biden actually kept the promise). Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale did not. The top rate was at least 69% from 1932 (not 1933, 1932) through 1981. The Income tax was not constitutional until February 3 1913. OK I don’t really remember the Democratic candidates in 1920, 1924, and 1928, and I just assume they didn’t promise to soak the rich and spread it out thin.

This is pure 200 proof economic populism and it has worked. For decades solid majorities in polls say that high income people and corporations pay less than their fair share in taxes. People like money and tend to vote for those who promise to give it to them (or not take it from them depending on their exact income level). In 2016 I expected my rule to fail, because, unlike her husband, Hillary Clinton did not promise a broad middle class tax cut. Also unlike her husband, she never became president. Bill Clinton is a policy wonk (I mean he impressed Larry Katz) but he is also a politician. Hillary Clinton insisted on carefully designing targeted tax cuts, which were clearly explained on her issues page which, like 99.99999% of my fellow citizens, I didn’t read. In any case, the money was to go to people who needed it, not non rich people who were doing OK (and who decide who is president). I say Hillary Clinton was too honest to get elected (I am 100% serious).

So I claim that that which is popular and causes election victories is old fashioned economic left populism. I think the evidence is overwhelming.

I have two linguistic challenges. FIrst “populism” is now used to refer to the Trumpist right. Here the logic is that opposition to those officially classified as experts is populist (it is). The official experts are an elite and rejecting them and the irritating facts they mention is populist (top US populist William Jenning Bryan ended his life arguing against Darwin). However, there are more things on heaven and on earth than The People and the experts and not all who reject experts do so in the interests of the masses (Donald Trump does so focused entirely on the interests of Donald Trump). Populists shout. Not all who shout are populists. Populists are angry. Not all who are angry are populists. Populists are not interested in exact data, not all people who are not interested in exact data are populists.

Populists side with The People and not with many other groups (the rich, the highly educated, foreigners, ethnic minorities, minority sexual and gender orientations — many many other groups) so different populists (who are generally populist) disagree on what is important and are on opposite sides of many debates.

I think the word is needed and that, this is one of the very very rare cases in which arguing about the definition of a word is wise.

“Popularism” is too clever by half. I think polls show that it isn’t needed as what is very very popular (election determining popular) is old fashioned left populism. I think it is a euphemism for chasing polls and focus group policy making (these approaches are sneered at for some reason – so a new name is useful). I think it is associated with the irritating centrists who advise the Democrats to move towards the center, that is move to the right.

In fact, Democrats have to move sharply left to be really popularist. Biden consistently says he is working to build the US economy from the middle out and that Republicans serve the rich. But he is too polite about it. It is hard for an incumbent to run promising radical change. It is also possible if the other party controls has a majority of the House of Representatives (they can’t even control their own caucus let alone the House).

I think it is good policy and good politics. “Soak the rich and spread it out thin” might be a little too crude, but I think only a little.