In two separate television clips yesterday, we saw the two most powerful political forces in America in their most pure form - and it's important to watch both clips back to back to see what I mean.
On one side, you have what Thomas Frank has called "Market Populism" - the portrayal of Wall Street's agenda as an impassioned mass-based populist movement. Check out this clip from CNBC, where the network's correspondent, Rick Santelli, is literally on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange surrounded by multimillionaire traders railing on the Obama administration for trying to help struggling homeowners, and berating people who are getting foreclosed on as "losers." Santelli is praised as a supposed "revolutionary" and the mob of financial elites around him is whooping and hollering, pretending to be a populist mob of regular Joes:
Now watch Virg Bernero, the mayor of Lansing, Michigan, presenting the antithesis of Market Populism - let's call it Grassroots Populism. Bernero demands to know how anyone can be calling for wage/benefit cuts for workers at a time the government is taking workers' tax money and handing it to the very speculators that Santelli is whooping it up with:
After watching these two clips, the question is the same question that's always been at the heart of economic politics: Which side are you on? And the answer, if you look at the hard data, is that most Americans are Grassroots Populists: those who think Wall Street and the government are colluding to rip off taxpayers, and who think the crumbs of aid for so-called "losers" that Santelli is ragging on is way too small - not way too much.
The gap, of course, is in the portrayal. If you watch television or read op-ed pages, the Market Populists get most of the attention. Indeed, Market Populism is portrayed as the "centrist" mainstream sentiment in the United States. Just look at David Brooks' New York Times column this morning. He non-sarcastically insists that Santelli's comments were "lustily" representative of mass popular anger at "these injustices" - not the injustices on Wall Street, mind you, but the supposed injustices of people now losing their homes. Meanwhile, Grassroots Populism - ie. seething populist anger at Corporate America - is depicted as the ideology only of a tiny fringe. It's as if the media is a funhouse mirror on society - a bizzaro world where up is down, black is white, and free market fundamentalism is portrayed as a mass-based movement.
When the macroeconomy was doing well, the disconnect between the media narrative and what's going on in the real world certainly caused regular people to lose confidence in the media, but it didn't incite outrage.
Now, though, with the economy in meltdown, I'm convinced that part of why the public is so angry is because what they see on television and in their newspapers is so fundamentally at odds with how they are feeling and what they are dealing with. As Santelli shows, large swaths of the media and political Establishment actively and publicly denigrate the people who are most hard hit by the downturn. Indeed, in the multimedia presentation I gave during my book tour for The Uprising, I have a whole section on this very phenomenon, using Fred Barnes' literally laughing at the "lower class" as my example.
This divide between the Market Populism people are fed through the media and people's own Grassroots Populism is a major catalyst that has turned the last two elections into backlash moments. And as bailouts and handouts now become daily news, and the Market Populists get ever more outrageous, that backlash is intensifying. Channeling it into something positive is the challenge of our time.