Thursday, April 16, 2009

Republicans and Populism


That recent poll suggesting 53% of Americans prefer capitalism to socialism didn’t strike me as too alarming. Polls mainly reveal that the public has few ideas so firmly fixed that they can’t be changed with a little rewording (70% had earlier said they favor the “free market”). Two things that did strike me about the numbers, though:

•Anyone (such as “liberaltarians”) hoping to make the case that Democrats are no more socialist than Republicans should take note of the fact that while Democrats were roughly evenly split in the poll between avowed capitalists, socialists, and undecideds, Republicans preferred capitalism by a whopping 11 to 1. If the country were all Republicans, we’d probably be in fairly good shape. (There’d still be that baffling 1 in 12 anti-capitalist Republican, who is either confused or a Huckabee supporter.)

•The public’s widely-held perception (more populist than leftist) of big business colluding with government is pretty accurate, I gotta say. We may need to think more about how to channel the justified anger on that front, especially now (though elected politicians of either party will be a tad resistant to rocking the corporatist-statist boat, obviously).

The contrast between the public’s reaction to “capitalism” (meh) and “free markets” (yay) almost suggests that we purported intellectuals should simply follow the public in making the same terminological distinction. (Down with bank bailouts and auto subsidies — not to mention all the thousands of other rarely-mentioned subsidies for the money-making elite that existed before the current mess. But up with property, entrepreneurs, etc.)

I’d be OK with a vast upsurge in (anti-government, anti-crony-corporate) “populism,” with all its dopey, unacademic tendencies, if it looked less like Huey Long and more like Tim Carney/Robert Novak populism — and like the Tea Party protests, such as the one I discussed on yesterday. We can also discuss all this at tonight’s Manhattan Project (as noted in my right margin), if you care to join us, in any sense of the words.


Xine said...

“the public has few ideas so firmly fixed that they can’t be changed with a little rewording”

“while Democrats were roughly evenly split in the poll between avowed capitalists, socialists, and undecideds, Republicans preferred capitalism by a whopping 11 to 1. If the country were all Republicans, we’d probably be in fairly good shape.”

I assume this poll was conducted recently. So, question: Given your correct observation that the outcome of polls depends upon their wording (an observation also made long ago by *Yes, Prime Minister*), why can we trust that the poll reflects a genuine commitment on the part of Republicans to capitalism? In other words, given the recent (post-January) date of many Republicans’ antipathy to big-government spending and government involvement in the market, I would prefer different wording in the poll before I agree that we’re in safer hands with Republicans. Since “socialism” has now been branded by too many Republicans as “massive government spending when Obama and the Democratic majority do it” (but not when Bush and the Republican majority did it), I’m not surprised the numbers skewed as they did among people identifying themselves as Republicans, and I’m still skeptical that this indicates a firm commitment to actual free markets and minimal government.

Now, if the poll’s dichotomy had been free markets/unfree markets instead of capitalism/socialism, and the same numbers of Republicans had expressed preference for the former, that would be more persuasive.

(This is not to say that Democrats don’t love socialism, and isn’t an argument that Democrats are to be preferred to Republicans for this reason, blah blah.)

Todd Seavey said...

Given what a mental coin-flip most poll questions are for respondents, I just think 11 to 1 is a lot more impressive than the usual 50/50 and third/third/third splits you see.

And at last night’s Tea Party protest in NYC, which drew thousands, the overwhelmingly Republican crowd repeatedly cheered precisely for the points that both parties have been guilty of big-government spending — and cheered invocations of individualism, free markets, and capitalism far more than any other intended rabble-rousing phrases.

The Republican rank and file — and even intellectuals — may have been slow to wake up to the fact that we have _two_ socialist parties in DC, not one, but they’re waking up…whereas Democrats do not necessarily have a problem with socialism, and therein lies the crucial distinction: inattention vs. deliberate oppression.

Most Republicans can be counted on to say “Oh, shit, all the politicians are spending a lot of money” when it’s brought to their attention. Many if not most Democrats say, “Ah, good, the enlargement of the public rather than the private and greed-driven sphere proceeds apace.”

In the short term, transpartisan political “noise” may swamp such distinctions or even produce results surprisingly the opposite of expectations, but in the long run the principles people espouse or even quietly applaud will tend to shape expectations of policymakers, and ones who favor socialism must be defeated, for the sake of the long run.

But simply fighting back now strikes me as more important than the proxy label-battles.

Todd Seavey said...

And for the record, since I probably still have some perversely left-o-philic libertarian acquaintances who think any mention of the Republicans’ good points is tantamount to falling for everything they say — and loving even the most foolhardy military ventures to boot — let me note that I was already publicly calling Bush a leftist big-spending green way back in early 2002, a year before the Iraq War even started:

Dylan said...

“Now, if the poll’s dichotomy had been free markets/unfree markets instead of capitalism/socialism … ”

I think the former is the best way to word things. A lot clearer. Free market or unfree market? Fairly straightforward — should voluntary individual transactions be left alone or intervened in by the government?

“Capitalism” and “Socialsim” are both laden with all kinds of ambiguous definitions. What I call “socialist,” my self-identified socialist friend will insist is NOT socialist, because his vision of socialism is a particular type of socialism, where my definition is more broad — I’ll find myself using the term to describe statism in general, so the conversation gets all muddled because of our different definitions of the same word (and all statism, to be fair, isn’t necessarily socialist).

And a lot of people associate “capitalism” not with free-markets but with “corporatism” — like Todd said, “the public’s widely-held perception of big-business colluding with government.” Which I agree, is accurate. It’s not free-market captialism, which is what most libertarians mean when they say “capitalist”. But, like it or not, the word has a negative connotation to a lot of people, which I’m specualting might be why a larger percentage of the public had a positive reaction to “free markets” than to “capitalism”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Marx come up with the word anyway? It might be better to find a word describing one’s own economic/political philosophy that wasn’t coined by the philosophy’s biggest enemy.

Todd Seavey said...

I’m not sure the number of people who think Republicans are as anti-capitalist as Democrats is large enough for me to bother continuing to offer counter-evidence to that position — oddly enough, it may only be a small subset of my libertarian acquaintances who hold this view — but while we’re on the topic, here’s another (to most people unsurprising) reminder where the basic (though far from encouraging or night/day dichotomous) allegiances lie, excerpted from a by-no-means laissez-faire article about the decrepit state of the GOP:

When Gallup asked voters their opinion on the “expansion of government’s role in this economy in response to the financial crisis,” 78 percent of Democrats and blue-leaning independents “approve” of it. Yet 72 percent of Republicans and red-leaning independents said they “disapprove.”