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Democrats try to co-opt populist rage. Hilarity ensues.

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Aug. 2, unveiling “A Better Deal on Trade & Jobs.” (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Washington was abuzz this week with talk about the new Democratic agenda, “A Better Deal,” which is suddenly dominating news coverage and captivating voters with a plan to remake the American economy, sending Republicans scrambling for a viable platform of their own in advance of the midterm elections.

No, not really. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention on the beach.

In reality, with Congress and the president out of town right now, Washington is deader than a Chick-fil-A on Sunday. Bored TV commentators would rather analyze every nuance of President Trump’s latest tweetstorm than spend a second debating trade policy.

And the agenda I mentioned, which Democrats began rolling out a few weeks ago in a series of choreographed events, has impressed pretty much no one.

The slogan, which apparently took months of focus-grouping to perfect, rather than the five seconds of idle thought while doing the laundry that you would think it required, evokes — yet again — memories of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, which remain powerful in exactly two places in America: nursing homes and Democratic leadership meetings.

Critics of the plan were quick to point out that it wasn’t really a plan at all — more like a collection of greatest hits like public infrastructure spending (1984), job retraining (1992) and monopoly busting (1896).

But the more profound and more overlooked problem with this “Better Deal” proclamation isn’t actually about its language or its gauziness. It’s more about the underlying philosophy, which misreads in some fundamental way the core appeal of Trump’s campaign.

Democrats are trying to do a couple of things with this new marketing push. One is to answer this question of what they actually want to achieve, aside from impeaching the president. In announcing the new slogan, Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, lamented that “too many Americans don’t know what we stand for” before boldly declaring: “Not after today.”

Because nothing redefines a party in the public mind like a slogan unveiled by congressional leaders at a podium. That’s always worked before.

The other and perhaps more urgent objective is to co-opt some of the populist fury that’s simmering right now in the Democratic base, before it overwhelms the party establishment in the same way that Trump toppled leading Republicans. Schumer and his compatriots are trying to convincingly adopt the ethos of the anti-corporate politicians who appeal most to their activists — namely Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

It’s worth taking a moment here to consider what being a populist party actually means in 2017.

Broadly speaking, populism is the practice of galvanizing the majority of the people against powerful and oppressive interests in the society. In the late 19th century and well into the 20th, populism necessarily translated into an assault on industrial-age business.

This made sense. The most powerful institutions in American life were ascendant corporations, which concentrated their collective energy on exploiting both workers and consumers for profit.

There was no central government to speak of back then, no balancing force on behalf of Americans who weren’t part of the industrial or financial elite. It took a series of populist leaders — most notably the two Roosevelts in the White House — to shatter the grip of corporate trusts and establish an essential counterbalance in the public sector.

Almost a century later, however, the meaning of populism is a little more complicated. Yes, a lot of Americans remain deeply suspicious of banks and multinational corporations, especially those that move manufacturing overseas. That’s a reliably strong current in our politics.

But we also depend on companies like Walmart and Target for affordable drugs, groceries and toys for our kids. The fastest-growing and most ubiquitous companies in America now aren’t in oil or steel; they’re Apple and Amazon and Google. You don’t sense a lot of populist outrage over next-day shipping.

Meanwhile, government bureaucracies have grown exponentially in both size and power. If you went out on the street anywhere in America and asked people what the most powerful institutions in American life are today, I’m betting almost everyone would name Washington in their top three.

And not just powerful but, to a lot of Americans, oppressive, too. It’s not so much the taxes people pay, which really aren’t all that onerous in most cases; yelling about taxes is really just a way of voicing general disdain.

It’s the TSA guy barking at you in the airport, or the woman at the DMV who rejected your paperwork, or the county inspector who threatened to shut down your shop over some obscure code. It’s the VA hospital that won’t give you an appointment, or the detox facility with no beds.

More than any of that, though, it’s the promises that never seem to be kept, year after year — of jobs, of affordable college, of renewal in abandoned towns. For decades now, since the onset of globalization and technological upheaval, politicians have been telling people they’ve got this or that plan to reverse the decline. They don’t.

According to the latest data from the indispensable Pew Research Center, about 55 percent of Americans are frustrated with the federal government, and only 20 percent say they trust the government to do what’s right most or all of the time. The partisan divides here shift from year to year, but the pervasive sentiment is remarkably constant.

This, at least among a lot of independent and less ideological voters, is what Trump tapped into last year with his silly red hat. Sure, he mouthed a lot of platitudes about setting Wall Street straight (and then hired the top echelon of Goldman Sachs to work in his White House). But it was his indictment of government generally — and the establishments of both parties — that ultimately washed away the Clintonian argument for faith in the governing class.

What this means is that populism as a purely economic proposition — the people versus their corporate overlords — is too limiting a construct in modern politics. Any winning populist critique probably has to extend to the failures of the federal bureaucracy, too.

Democrats don’t like to hear this. They represent the party of government, and they fear that if they acknowledge its flaws or anachronisms, they will essentially be validating the conservative argument.

But that’s not right, and it’s self-defeating. You can be pro-government and still make the case for fundamental reform and modernization, as Gary Hart and Bill Clinton once did. That’s just admitting reality.

What does the “Better Deal” have to say about this?

Among the precious few new policy ideas Democrats now propose is the creation of yet more government agencies to rein in corporate excess and unfair trade. Praising this proposal in The Nation, the liberal writer David Dayen noted that “building new agencies with targeted missions was a hallmark of the New Deal.”

Right. Except this isn’t 1933. We have all the agencies we can handle now, and we don’t trust them a whole lot to begin with.

A party that believes more government will solve everything can’t really call itself populist in any modern sense of the word. It’s more just anti-business and anti-Trump.

I’d be surprised if most Americans — or at least the ones you need to win back majorities — consider that much of a deal at all.

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