The People vs. the Interests
AT ITS mini-convention in Kansas City in December, the Democratic party focused its attentions on economic issues, or it did so to the extent, at least, that the media and certain minority factions within the party allowed it to get beyond the sensitive problem of representation for racial minorities, women, and young people in party affairs. This renewed preoccupation with economic issues represents, of course, a response to the current overwhelming concerns of the public relating to the compound crisis of recession and inflation. For party strategists and for liberals in general, however, it reflects something more than an obvious, even necessary, reaction to immediate conditions; it means as well a return to a central tradition of modern American liberalism.
It is among the distinguishing characteristics of the American experience that economic issues and conflicts have normally been defined not in the rigorous class terminology of European Marxism, but rather in a more generalized populistic fashion. American liberalism has typically substituted for the precise language of class warfare the more vague formulation of the People against the Interests, a formulation which implies certain class or group tensions but which avoids Marxist categories and overtones uncongenial to the American tradition. Many liberals, then, contemplate in our current economic crisis more than its dangers or its immediate political opportunities; for them, a shift from recent emphasis on cultural and moral matters to a primary concern with economic and social-welfare issues means a return to neo-Populism, and it is in neo-Populism that they find the best, perhaps the only, hope for a restoration of liberal unity and a renewal of liberal ideology. The extent, however, to which these expectations are justified is problematic, as becomes apparent in an analysis of the populistic tradition.
About the Author
James Nuechterlein, a former professor of American studies and political thought at Valparaiso University, is a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.