Forty years ago, the Republican Party championed a populist movement that appealed to “the Silent Majority,” Americans who refused to take part in the anti-war rallies and counterculture of the 1960s. By doing so, the GOP was propelled to victory in the next two elections.
Today there is another populist revolt afoot. This time it’s being fueled by the mass of Americans who are outraged over Wall Street scandals, chronic high unemployment, incontinent government spending and, most of all, the Democrats’ handling of healthcare reform.
But this time, rather than remaining silent, the American majority — Republicans, Democrats and Independents — is speaking up loudly and clearly. This new “Vocal Majority” can help the GOP, but only if Republicans begin to speak up more forcefully for Americans alienated by a tone-deaf ruling party.
A populist movement is any that champions the rights and power of the people over elites. The Left has often embraced populism when it has suited them. President Obama got elected in part by adopting a soft economic populism.
He made the implausible promise to cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans. And he campaigned with populist red meat like: “Change means a tax code that doesn’t reward the lobbyists who wrote it but the American workers and small businesses who deserve it…”
And the Left has often framed their fight for universal healthcare in populist terms, as a campaign for everyday Americans against elite politicians in bed with evil insurance companies.
Now, though, it is strong opposition to the Democrats’ overhaul of healthcare that’s provoked populist rage. At first, liberal policymakers and the media tried to ignore the passionate protests, dismissing town hall demonstrations as “Astroturf,” “manufactured” by “evil mongers” like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.
But the backlash became too strong. So the Left began ridiculing concerned citizens, labeling them as ignorant, racist or as having a lack of empathy for uninsured Americans.
We’ve seen this type of response before. During the 2006 populist backlash against plans to grant amnesty for illegal immigrants, those who spoke out were called xenophobic knuckle-draggers who should be ignored.
And those who showed up to the spring’s Tea Party protests against excessive taxation and government spending were at first dismissed then portrayed as a group of ignorant kooks. The same thing is happening with healthcare reform. But it won’t work.
Putting aside the name-calling and childish attacks, the Left seems unable to come to terms with the fact that the populist revolt against healthcare reform is essentially apolitical. The backlash includes most conservatives but also many Democrats and a majority of Independents. A recent poll showed twice as many independents as not felt that town hall protests have made them more sympathetic to protestors.
Conservative commentators are getting attention for fanning the flames of discontent. But anybody who has attended or watched any of the town hall events knows that the outrage is deeply felt by Americans across the ideological spectrum.
Middle-and lower-middle-class Americans have often sided with the Republican Party on cultural issues. But many have felt that the Democrats more closely represented their interests on economic issues, which is why the Left’s economic populism has worked so well in the past.
Healthcare populism is so strong because it taps into the public’s anxiety about the Left’s handling of both economic issues (spending and taxes) and cultural issues (taxpayer-funded abortion and “death panels”).
None of this means outraged Americans will unflinchingly embrace the GOP. But it does provide Republicans with an opportunity to harness the current populist wave by addressing the anger that’s crystallized in the town hall events.
Polls show Americans are unhappy with the job Democrats have done. But they are also uneasy about the GOP. Many Americans are just sick and tired of politicians of all stripes. So it is up to Republicans to be pro-active, and to make a better effort to understand the concerns of Middle America.
It is a condemnation of many of the current crop of Republicans that the strongest arguments being made against the looming economic tsunami — whether from seizing control of health care, the auto industry, energy policy or deficit spending — come from courageous grandmothers and other ordinary citizens at town hall meetings.
The GOP has done itself no favors by parroting the line “elections have consequences” and employing passive-aggressive tactics rather than forcefully confronting the ill conceived policies of arrogant Democrats.
Elections do have consequences. And Republicans who want to get re-elected should join with their fellow citizens to confront the social and economic policies that have brought other nations to the point of bankruptcy.
This week the White House and Democratic congressional leaders announced their intention to “go it alone” on healthcare reform. Despite the bi-partisan backlash from Americans across the country, liberals are determined to pass healthcare legislation that includes a government-run insurance plan. One Democratic congressman even admitted at a town hall gathering that he would vote against his constituents’ wishes no matter what.
Republicans have been handed a great opportunity to appeal to the Vocal Majority of Americans upset over the Democrats’ fixation on government-run health care. Now they must embrace it.