Sometimes it’s hard to avoid the impression that the left’s intellectual leaders resent Donald Trump for stealing their act. In the estimation of some, it was Donald Trump’s embrace of center-left economic populism that convinced enough voters to look past his unsavory comments about Gold Star families, Mexican judges, and former beauty pageant contestants. That self-congratulatory line of thought is evident in the latest column from the New York Times’s David Leonhardt. According to Leonhardt, the ideological-purity contests and divisive social issues that consume the activist left are anathema to the Democratic Party’s candidates. For Democratic politicians with skin in the game, he declares, theirs is the “smart” kind of populism.
The sum of Leonhardt’s thesis is that Democratic candidates, ranging from Georgia’s gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams to Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb, eschew the divisive politics of the blogosphere. They don’t even talk much about Trump, save for the occasional condemnatory aside. Instead, they’ve focused on left-of-center economic issues. He cites candidates in West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky to reinforce his point. Pragmatic populism, he contends, is the new Democratic vogue.
Leave aside for the moment the fact that all of these candidates are running in Trump-friendly districts and states, where campaigning as a social-justice activist is suicide. Leonhardt’s chief contention is that these candidates have adopted a socio-economic message that speaks to the persuadable voter because Americans, by and large, are “remarkably progressive on economics.” To support this claim, Leonhardt links to a column he wrote in April stipulating that American voters in the Trump years have ratified through referenda, and polled in support of, bigger government and a higher tax burden on the wealthy.
The progressive programs Leonhardt claims as the audacious ideas that will propel the 21st Century forward are entirely nostalgic. Expanding Great Society entitlement programs to people for whom they were never intended, like the young and healthy, a federal job guarantee, “debt-free college,” and the prospect of increased taxes on high-income earners and corporations are ideas that are neither new nor especially big.
Following more than a half-century of experimentation, it should be clear by now to all dispassionate observers that the kind of social engineering Leonhardt advocates is never limited to economics alone. Progressive taxation hides the costs of public services, which fuels unrealistic consumer demands. The expansion of entitlement programs attacks the sinews that hold families and communitarian mediating institutions together. When those bonds deteriorate, bigger public institutions take their place. The dysfunction that these programs produce not only creates the demand for more government to solve the problems it exacerbates; it also sows the seeds for the kind of populist backlash epitomized by Trump.
What Leonhardt leaves unaddressed is the feasibility of the “smart” populism to which Democrats have tethered themselves. Democratic candidates who advocate Medicare-for-all or single-payer health-care systems are winning primaries, but they’re not showing their work. The program supported by Senator Bernie Sanders would cost the Treasury $1.4 trillion per year, and even that estimation relies on crippling new taxes on individuals and businesses and a series of assumptions, such as reduced payments to doctors, hospitals, and drug manufacturers. The non-partisan Urban Institute pegged the cost of a national single-payer system at $32 trillion over ten years. Not even Democrat-dominated California could make the math work.
The same criticisms apply to the rest of the modern Democratic agenda. The cost of higher education has ballooned as the number of administrative staff tasked with complying with state and federal regulations exploded by over 240 percent. Thus, Democrats claim, the government must step in to alleviate the problems it created by subsidizing the cost of enrollment or wiping away debts. We have a 3.9 percent unemployment rate, with wages and labor force participation rates on the rise. This seems an odd time to advocate $15-per-hour make-work jobs (replete with a full benefits package and one-week paid vacation per every three months worked). That would cost the government another $543 billion per year, with some presumed savings from the newly employed who would no longer qualify for certain benefits.
The Democratic Party’s “Better Deal” is brimming with pledges to double “federal investments” in pre-k through grade 12 education, broadband infrastructure, public transit, and green energy. Leonhardt claims that Democrats up for election this year are united behind this agenda, but there is already grumbling in the ranks over these empty promises. “Members of both parties have recently moved to dreaming big dreams without figuring out how to pay for it,” said Delaware Senator Tom Carper following his party’s promise to finance $100 billion for members of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association through higher taxes. Carper faces no stiff competition from Republicans in a state Trump lost by 12 points. This is a statement of principle.
Democrats can be forgiven for believing they have won the argument when it comes to the national debt. Following the GOP-backed debt-financed tax-code-reform law and their $1.3 trillion spending package, Democrats have every reason to believe that debt doesn’t matter anymore. But as America enters a debt crisis in the next decade—one in which Medicare is estimated to reach insolvency and the debt exceeds 100 percent of GDP—money will be on voters’ minds in a way it likely has not been since 2009. Donald Trump, like his contemporary Democrats, has a soft spot for a mythologized version of mid-century America in which one-size-fits-all public-sector interventionism is the answer to every socio-economic crisis. But that model long ago ceased to perform as advertised.
What Leonhardt sees as “big” and “smart” ideas amount to mere sentimentality, and that is the essence of populism. There is no divorcing social dysfunction from the class consciousness that distinguishes populism from pragmatism.