March is turning out to be a month for underdogs. Last week the Republicans came from behind to win a special congressional election in Florida, even with a former lobbyist as their candidate.
Today, Politico’s Ben White and Maggie Haberman suggest that there’s finally a backlash to the economic populism that brought us last fall’s election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York and a few opinion pieces suggesting that Elizabeth Warren could overthrow Hillary Clinton to become the Democrats’ next presidential nominee. The attack on the concentration of wealth in America was just a terrible, but mercifully quick, nightmare: “Just a few months ago, it looked like 2014 would be the year of the populist, with Democrats running on economic inequality, tea party Republicans bashing banks and newly minted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pledging to soak the rich with higher taxes. That was so January. The terrain is now shifting fast as the 1 percent fights back hard and the effectiveness of the populist approach comes into question.”
White and Haberman cite the Florida result as evidence “the Democratic playbook for the midterms appears in need of a major rewrite — and the pro-business wing of the party is ready to draw up new plans.” This means downplaying, if not abandoning, Democratic initiatives to raise the minimum wage and extend unemployment insurance, and standing by quietly while the Republicans trash one of their own, House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, for proposing a tax on large banks.
Oh, and the Politico article has another billionaire, Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, comparing economic populists to Nazis: “if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.” This is part of a trend that even the famously contrarian website Slate can’t get behind.
Not that Politico had much of a scoop. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait already wrote last week that the “epidemic of envy” in our political system was a mirage: “In a system that requires candidates for any major office to spend hour after hour courting wealthy donors, and which virtually guarantees they themselves will join the one percent immediately upon leaving office, who would ever want to personally impugn the rich?”
And while populist initiatives like a federal minimum wage increase and a bank tax are stalled in Congress, many states are moving in the opposite direction. The Washington Post reports that Mississippi will become the 10th state to require drug testing of applicants to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant praised the reform: “The TANF program is a safety net for families in need, and adding this screening process will aid adults who are trapped in a dependency lifestyle so they can better provide for their children.”
The University of Chicago’s Harold Pollack, who has studied substance abuse in the low-income population, is not as impressed. He tells the New Republic’s Nora Caplan-Bricker:
The politics of impunity towards poor people is especially striking here. It strains credulity that we would subject a less-stigmatized or more influential constituency to the same indignity to which Mississippi wishes to subject applicants to the TANF program. It is especially ironic that Mississippi would pursue these policies while declining to participate in ACA’s Medicaid expansion: the single most important policy initiative to provide mental health and substance abuse treatment services to low-income people who are not eligible for public cash aid.
TANF recipients may be stigmatized, but they should be thankful they are not the victims of an envy epidemic.
Photo: Yesterday's news, Mayor Bill de Blasio, attends St. Patrick's Day Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on March 17. From Catholic News Service.