09/08/2010 09:07 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Populism and Equality: It's the Economy, Stupid

"Populist" has been used throughout the world in a variety of ways over the past two centuries, but in the United States today there is some consensus on the term's meaning: populists side with "the people" against elites.

In our new Gilded Age, the gap between the many below and the few at the top is growing, and a populist sensibility is naturally on the rise. Oddly, though, the rich are seldom targets of popular wrath.

Instead, on the right, ill-defined class animosities are channeled into culture wars, where they simmer until political entrepreneurs stir them up into virulent political movements. Left populists misdirect their animosities too, but in a less confused way.

Meanwhile, for decades, philosophers have subjected notions of equality to intensive scrutiny. These efforts have not been in vain; much has been learned about the concept and its implications. But what has been achieved has had almost no effect on public consciousness. Ours is a culture in which the academy flourishes at the same time that the ideas generated in it, when not directly serviceable to governing elites, are effectively sequestered.

This is unfortunate. But it is not necessary to be knowledgeable about recent philosophical advances to see how defective populist purchases on equality are. Being for the (undifferentiated) people and against (similarly undifferentiated) elites, one would expect all populists to be egalitarians. Left populists generally meet this expectation, though in a defective and ultimately disabling way. Right populists effectively support inequality without realizing it.

The action these days mainly is on the right - where, thanks to corporate connivers, a risible and motley concoction calling itself the Tea Party has emerged. Those who conjured it into existence had an easy time of it. With the economy in disarray and the Obama administration doing precious little to turn it around, there were plenty of potential Tea Partiers out there waiting to be mobilized.

Not long ago, the consensus view among their critics was that right-wing populists, the GOP's "useful idiots," were "values voters" for whom commitments to ideals trumped economic interests. If so, good for them; better to be moved by values than to be simple-minded dupes. But putting values first is estimable only to the extent that the values themselves are defensible. Right-wing populist values generally are not.

Thus, for most "pro-lifers," abortion should be proscribed because fetuses have "souls" that confer upon them an infrangible "right to life." Or they oppose abortion because, at some level, they realize that its availability enhances women's' control over their own bodies in ways detrimental to male domination. There is no denying it: values voters have bad values. But values voting isn't all that is going on with them, not by a long shot; resentment, born of social instability and dislocation, is running the show.

This is why right-wing populism morphs easily into culture wars in which nostalgia for ways things never were contends with the cultural by-products of secular and progressive ideologies organized around conceptions of equality. This is ironic inasmuch as those ideologies, liberalism excepted, have lately fallen into eclipse. It is also dangerous. It was resentment of the kind that the Tea Party feeds upon that made classical fascism possible, and that has enabled virtually all authoritarian regimes of the right.

For both theoretical and political reasons, it would be well to move from populism to a political orientation cognizant of class structure and class struggle. But, as long as vague populist attitudes remain unavoidable, populisms that reflect the real interests of the people, left-populisms, are a good counter for populisms of the right. But for them to do much good, or even just to prevail against Tea Party thinking, they will have to rid themselves of some glaring shortcomings.

For one thing, they must become philosophically aware enough to fault inequality for compelling reasons, not just vague and unarticulated intuitions. Left populist intuitions are generally sound. It is indeed unseemly that the rich get richer and that they flaunt their wealth, especially when they immiserate others. And those who accept huge bonuses or obscenely high salaries ought to be ashamed, and they should certainly be condemned. The consequences of increasing inequality are many and they are almost always lamentable. But it would help if left populists had a better grasp of why; in other words, if they had some purchase on what inequalities, if any, are defensible and how, if at all, wage and salary differentials can be justified.

In the end, though, a truly cogent left populism would transcend the horizons of populism altogether. For it is not enough just to stimulate and channel outrage; what is needed, for outrage about inequality to become constructive, is understanding of the factors causing it and affecting its waxing and waning. Outrage can be justifiable, even in the absence of justifications and, for mobilizing political support, it is indispensable. But it is ultimately of no avail if it is not grounded in a theory and practice aimed at undoing the conditions that underlie it and that make it appropriate.

To put the point in an ostensibly old-fashioned but more than ever timely way, it is urgent to do what left populism only suggests: to put capitalism itself in question. As we inveigh against "malefactors of great wealth," it is important not to lose sight of what is most essential: that it's not them, loathsome as they may be, but the underlying system that is the problem; or, as one might say in the Carville dialect of Clintonese, "it's the economic structure, stupid."