The great populist wave

In her landmark essay in Commentary titled “Dictatorship and Double Standards” the late Dr. Jeane Kirkpatrick laid the foundation for the Reagan realignment when a great communicator became a Teflon president and brought dramatic change to Washington.

Sound familiar?

While I was one of the first to coin the phrase “bailout backlash,” what is actually happening is a great wave of populism across the nation.

It is historic, momentous, and realigning. It began in 2006, triumphed in 2008 and may sweep through 2010. 2009 is 1981.  Obama is Reagan.  The cause of outrage that fuels reform is not dictatorship and double standards, but democracy and double standards.  It is caused when the headlines in the news reinforce the experience of daily lives leading to the conviction that things are not right.

Forget ideology.  Forget  partisanship.  Forget the chatter of the cable pundit class.  This is about the daily experience of virtually all Americans who know from their lives, that there are double standards that are simply not fair.  They are  determined to bring sweeping change to Washington and Wall Street alike.

Obama follows Reagan as the Teflon president because Americans feel that he is a smart, decent guy trying to honorably look out for them. He is seen as a fair referee, calmly steering  the nation through turbulent times while navigating forces that appear out of control, and radically self-interested, in the sense of Madison’s warning in Federalist Paper 10.

These Americans are hard-working and law abiding.  They have an innate sense of decency and fairness.  They understand notions such as equity, unjust enrichment, shared patriotism and shared sacrifice. They are a sleeping giant that has awakened because they know, now, from their daily lives, that some things just aren’t right.

Americans know a double standard when they see one.  Contracts for autoworkers should be thrown out but contracts for bankers are sacred.  CEOs of banks are treated with deference at the White House while the CEO of General Motors is axed.

Americans are tolerant, patient, and good-natured but they know a ripoff when they see one.  They see agencies of government giving trillions of dollars to banks.  Yet in their daily lives, years of earning high credit ratings are destroyed when their bank cuts their credit limit.

Years of making payments on time are treated with contempt, as their interest rates are raised, at times to levels once demanded by ogranized crime.

This is not about party.  Or ideology.  Or punditry.  This is about the daily experiences of life in the nation that is supposed to be of the people, by the people, and for the people, which is true populism.

John Doe worries about his job, and reads of deflation, and then goes to the supermarket and finds that prices have risen.  Jane Doe works two jobs to make ends meet, but finds that when she shops for food for dinner, the great household names have cut the portions in their servings, while raising the price for her food.

The Doe family gratefully does their part, because they love our country, but they know its wrong for them to pay taxes to fund bailouts, when their money goes to pay million-dollar bonuses, or fund campaign donations.

If John Doe falls a few days behind in paying the phone company, they threaten to turn off his phone.  Yet when he works hard to earn a living, he is often told “the check is in the mail.” If Jane Doe falls behind in her rent, she  is evicted, but while  she works two jobs to make ends meet, she is told, on both jobs, that her work is worth only 80 percent of a man’s.

John Doe may have served our country bravely but finds treatment of veterans an unfair burden. Jane Doe may have just returned from service in Iraq.  Yet they can’t afford the medicine for the kids, while they read that big Democratic lobbyists are paid by drug companies to push for high prices.

The Does see tent cities rising and know that something is not right.  They know families who must choose between dinner for Mom and Dad and medicine for the kids, and know something is very wrong.  They are called losers by an option trader in Chicago while the price of their gas is bartered by speculators, oligopolies and cartels, and they are told about the magic of the market.  

 They lose jobs to countries that abuse workers and are told it is free trade.  They see scandals in foreclosures and compensation fit for kings  and are told this is laissez faire, and when they ask for simple equity they are told this is moral hazard.

The great populist wave has begun, rooted in the daily experiences of real people, fueled by simple notions of right and wrong.  It is a progressive populism behind a progressive  capitalism, in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt, speaking for a majority of the nation, and those who doubt this are advised to lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Bill Alexander, then chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. degree in international financial law from the London School of Economics. He can be read on The Hill’s Pundits Blog and reached at