In a new op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle, I take a look at how Washington's surprise at the rise of populism shows just how totally out of touch with heartland economic concerns our nation's capital has become. Reporting on my visit to Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Washington, I discuss how many white-collar information sector workers are becoming increasingly galvanized against our government's elitist economic policies.
The establishment chattering class - elite reporters, pundits and politicians - generally portray populist challenges to lobbyist-written trade, wage, and jobs policy as supposedly outdated demagogings of luddites and/or racists. That attitude is so innate and so reflexive, it is likely the manifestation of cultural surroundings, and specifically from the chattering class's physical isolation. As I've shown, most of the major "opinionmakers" live in the New York-Washington corridor and rarely - if ever - actually go beyond that corridor to talk to, cover or report on heartland concerns.
Nonetheless, whatever the cultural reason for establishment attacks on populism, there is clearly self-interest here as the barrage serves three distinct purposes: 1) To create the veneer of enlightenment for this same chattering class to cravenly defend their own complicity in crushing the middle class 2) To allow this chattering class to preen around as supposedly smarter than everyone else and 3) To justify the status quo, even as more and more Americans get economically squeezed.
But as I found in my reporting, such a posture only further alienates the bigger and bigger swath of America that is figuring out the real story about how our government sells off economic policy to the highest bidder ( a story I call the hostile takeover). This is the reason why, as U.S. News and World Report points out, at least some courageous Democrats are taking a more confrontational posture in the face of Bush administration efforts to, for instance, ram new lobbyist-written trade pacts through Congress and reuthorize "fast track" trade authority - the authority that lets presidents strip labor, human rights and environmental provisions out of trade deals.
The most interesting part about all this, at least in terms of how it relates to the political arena, is the careful kabuki dance the presidential candidates are engaging in. At the same time Wall Street CEOs are running to the media to brag about how they are leveraging campaign contributions in exchange for the power to write many prospective candidates' economic policy positions, these same prospective candidates are appearing before union audiences to pledge their allegiance to middle-class populism with some (most notably Sen. Hillary Clinton) actually trying to repudiate their own previous positions entirely.
I don't think this kind of thing is going to work, because as workers become more and more anxious about their economic security, they are also becoming more aware of which politicians represent them, and which clearly do not. With economic crisis comes political awareness. And as my op-ed shows, with political awareness comes the possibility for change.