The populism problem

It’s been the political equivalent of an intervention: in recent weeks, Democrats have been bombarded with advice about how they should reinvent their economic agenda. The electorate, we hear, wants Barack Obama to be more of an economic populist but less of an ambitious reformer. He has to aggressively create jobs but also be less spendthrift. This advice may be contradictory, but then so are the economic opinions of the many angry voters who are animating what’s being called the new populism. Whereas the economic populism of the eighteen-nineties and the right-wing cultural populism of recent years represented reasonably coherent ideologies, this new populism has stitched together incompatible concerns and goals into one “I’m mad as hell” quilt. The people may have spoken. It’s just not clear that they’re making any sense.