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January 13, 2014 4:01 PM The Warren and de Blasio Populist “Wings”

By Ed Kilgore

TNR’s Noam Scheiber, who is bidding fair to become the chronicler of a left-wing “populist” revolt against “centrist” Democratic politics, has a column today that sharply differentiates Elizabeth Warren’s style of “populism” from Bill de Blasio’s. And there’s not much doubt which “wing” of Democratic populism he’s putting his money on: Warren, he believes, supports more radical and effective policies than the New York mayor, which also happen to be a lot more popular.

On the substance front, Scheiber thinks de Blasio’s mostly talk when it comes to standing up to the rich and powerful:

De Blasio’s rhetoric sounds more leftist, implying a relentless competition between underclass and overclass. But the substance of Warren’s agenda is far more radical. She wants to upend a fundamentally corrupt system, one in which big banks and other interests have coopted the apparatus of government. By contrast, de Blasio implicitly accepts “the system”—which in New York means an economy built around the financial sector and the real estate industry—and wants to mitigate its least desirable effects.
Or, put differently, de Blasio accepts that today’s rich and powerful will continue to be rich and powerful; he just thinks they should do more to help the rest of us. Warren questions the very legitimacy of their wealth and power. “I’ve been in the Senate for nearly a year and believe as strongly as ever that the system is rigged,” she said in a recent speech.

Alert readers may note that the two “populists” as described by Scheiber fit into my own recent template of Clintonian “centrists” favoring redistribution of income via tax and spending policies while “populists” of the left want to change the initial distribution via employer mandates, business regulation and trade policies. So I would tend to agree that de Blasio fits the most recent “populist” tradition less than does Warren.

I also agree that Warren’s approach is likely to be more popular nationally than de Blasio’s, and only in part because a New York mayor represents a unique city that’s a global financial capital. Scheiber’s basically right that Warren’s regulation-heavy prescriptions are less likely to run afoul of anti-government populism than de Blasio’s, because they seem aimed at attacking what libertarians call “crony capitalism” and letting “true” market forces operate.

There are a couple of countervailing ironies, of course. In reality tweaks in tax rates are less “bureaucratic” than a regulatory system big and strong enough to take on the financial sector. And attacks on “crony capitalism” were very much the stock and trade of many Clintonian “centrist” thinkers, who actually popularized the term “corporate welfare” (later borrowed by Ralph Nader and many others) and harkened back to a “lost Wilsonian” liberal tradition of protecting capitalist competition from rent-seeking predators instead of building up big public-sector programs.

So the bloodlines from this or that tradition are not all that clear. If, as you might well surmise, Scheiber’s intention is first to distinguish (good) populists from (not-so-good) centrists like HRC, and then to reassign de Blasio from the former to the latter category, it doesn’t work out quite so neatly. And in any event, I remain convinced that HRC is going to roll through the 2016 nominating process with or without support or opposition from Warren or de Blasio. That’s in part because the minority-group constituencies without which left-bent campaigns will inevitably fail (as they’ve done over and over again, from Adlai Stevenson to Bill Bradley to Howard Dean to John Edwards) are very likely to be in the Clinton camp whether or not they should “objectively” look elsewhere. In the unlikely event that Elizabeth Warren actually shares Noam Scheiber’s enthusiasm for a challenge to HRC, she should work on her minority street cred in a big way.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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