Ever since Bill de Blasio coasted to the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York, political taxonomists have fixated on a new left-wing ideology: “deBlasioWarren populism,” a kind of Germanic rhetorical synthesis of the mayor and the Massachusetts senator. Critics and boosters alike have crowned the two pols leaders of the same movement, albeit with centrists warning that it represents an electoral “dead end” and liberals cheering the clarifying virtues of the new “progressive populism.”
As it happens, though, de Blasio and Warren stand for two distinct, if overlapping, worldviews. And one is likely to be far more successful at a time of near-record distrust of government.
Start with de Blasio, who famously made social and economic inequality the centerpiece of his campaign—anyone who follows politics can recite his “tale of two cities” indictment of the Bloomberg era. De Blasio assailed the privileges of the wealthy (“If you live on Park Avenue, you got everything you need. Nannies and housekeepers…” began one de Blasio ad. He championed affordable housing, and promised a local minimum wage and more sick leave for workers. His signature initiative would raise taxes on New Yorkers making over $500,000 to fund universal pre-kindergarten and after-school programs.
Warren spends much less time fulminating against the rich per se. Though she has an interest in inequality, she talks far more about the middle-class than the poor. Her signal preoccupation is the way financial institutions have amassed enormous economic and political advantages at the expense of everyone else. She has co-sponsored a bill that would break up the megabanks. She has labored to expose why it is that federal regulators never take big banks to court. She decries the way reform battles in Congress pit a few dozen activists against thousands of industry lobbyists, an asymmetry that virtually guarantees victory for the status quo.
De Blasio’s rhetoric sounds more leftist, implying a relentless competition between underclass and overclass. But the substance of Warren’s agenda is far more radical. She wants to upend a fundamentally corrupt system, one in which big banks and other interests have coopted the apparatus of government. By contrast, de Blasio implicitly accepts “the system”—which in New York means an economy built around the financial sector and the real estate industry—and wants to mitigate its least desirable effects.1
Or, put differently, de Blasio accepts that today’s rich and powerful will continue to be rich and powerful; he just thinks they should do more to help the rest of us. Warren questions the very legitimacy of their wealth and power. “I’ve been in the Senate for nearly a year and believe as strongly as ever that the system is rigged,” she said in a recent speech.
This difference of emphasis isn’t shocking: New York City would fall into a deep depression if the financial sector shrunk substantially. And I don’t mean to belittle de Blasio’s agenda, which I consider important. But neither is that agenda especially ambitious in any cosmic sense. As other politicians have demonstrated before him, there’s no particular tension between a concern for the poor and a deference to the rich.* It’s why some have begun to think of de Blasio’s worldview as “Bloombergism with a populist mask.” De Blasio helped nurture this impression himself by courting the lords of finance and real estate during his general election campaign, then making a handful of Bloomberg-esque appointments, like the Goldman Sachs executive he named as his deputy mayor for housing and development.2
But here’s the thing: In addition to being more radical substantively, Warren’s agenda is much more sale-able politically.
The reason is that it plays directly to the source of today’s anti-government skepticism. While trust in government has been steadily falling since hitting a decades-long peak after 9/11, voters’ particular beef against government changed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Around that time, a variety of indicators suggested that voters’ suspicions were tied to the relationship between the government and powerful interests, whom voters believed were lavishing benefits on themselves at taxpayer expense. Pew found a sharp bipartisan drop in the number of voters who felt “government is really run for the benefit of all the people” beginning in 2009. Gallup found a spike in the number of people dissatisfied with “size and influence of major corporations.” It turns out that many of the voters who’d lost faith in government weren’t anti-government per se. They’d simply concluded it was working for the powerful and not for them.
If you think back to what was happening at this moment, it’s not hard to see how voters got this impression. Between the stimulus, Congress’s bank bailout, and all the cushy loans the Federal Reserve was fronting Wall Street, Americans saw trillions in federal dollars go out the door in 2008 and 2009. However effective this money may have been at propping up the macro-economy, it didn’t seem to improve their daily lives. To the contrary, the average voter soon saw a foreclosure crisis reach epic proportions, and unemployment hit a 30-year high, even as the big banks soared back to record profitability. The whole government thing didn’t look like a very good deal.
Against this backdrop, the problem for de Blasio-style populism is not that reducing inequality isn’t a worthy goal, or even one that’s widely shared. It’s that support for government is so low that few outside the left are likely to believe government can achieve it. Warren-style populism, on the other hand, goes right to the source of the cynicism. In the same way that Middle America believed government was mostly benefiting the undeserving poor in the 1980s and early 90s, today they believe it mostly benefits undeserving rich and powerful. And, just as Democrats had to dispel the former belief before they could advance the rest of their agenda, today they must dispel the latter. Warren’s approach does that.
So while centrist critics thunder that deBlasioWarren populism is a “fantasy-based blue state” proposition, Warren-ism, at least, has enormous potential nationally.
In October, a poll for an open Senate seat in South Dakota, a state Republicans carried by 18 points in 2012, showed an obscure Democrat named Rick Weiland down a mere six points to the state’s former Republican governor, Mike Rounds. Weiland’s mantra has been that what afflicts the country isn’t government per se; it’s a government that’s been hijacked by “big-money interests.” South Dakota voters agreed with this statement by a 68-26 margin.
When I spoke to Weiland shortly after the poll came out, he told me he saw himself as a Democrat in the Elizabeth Warren vein. In recent years, other Democrats have succeeded with variations on this message in states as varied as Ohio and Connecticut. De Blasio-style populism may or may not be a “fantasy-based blue state” notion. But Warren’s version is getting remarkable pickup all across America.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber.