It croaked on a birthday of sorts. This month marks 10 years since the Great Recession – and thereby the social movement it unleashed – was born.
This obituary begins in December 2007, when the spark of the financial crisis grew into a fire. The conflagration would go on to blaze through more than 8 million jobs, trillions of dollars in wealth, millions of foreclosed homes and half the value of the stock market.
Older and middle-age workers would lose jobs and nest eggs. Younger workers would get stuck in dead-end careers, if they could find careers at all, and fall behind on milestones of adulthood such as homeownership and marriage.
And millions of children would grow up watching their parents stress about money. Some would come to wonder whether socialism was really such a dirty word after all.
Amid disillusionment with elites, resentment of “banksters” and their garish bonuses, and furor with regulators who let the crisis happen and then held no one – but no one – truly accountable, a populist fever erupted.
For some, this populism took a decidedly leftist strain.
The Occupy Movement demanded a pound of flesh from Wall Street, as well as an entirely new social contract. You can draw a straight line between those who camped in Zuccotti Park in 2011 and the broader movement that last year agitated for single-payer health care, free college and other forms of economic redistribution.
Plenty of other populists broke right.
Like their socialist brethren, these populists hated Wall Street bailouts, but they hated handouts going to their undeserving neighbors even more. They asked: Why should their mortgages be written off when my home is also underwater? Why should they get food stamps when I struggle to put dinner on the table? Why should they get free health care when I’m living paycheck to paycheck?
Many increasingly concluded that the answers were some version of: because they don’t look like me.
I cannot tell you how many of the unemployed workers I interviewed during the recession and its aftermath blamed their inability to find work on employers’ supposed favoritism of the young (if they themselves were old) or of the old (if they were young), of men (if they were women), of women (if they were men) and of the nonwhite (if they were white).
Of course, the main reason these workers couldn’t get a job was that there weren’t enough jobs to be gotten. With the economic pie no longer growing, every paltry slice was in dispute.
Those on the populist, anti-establishment left eventually found a savior in a socialist senator from Vermont. The populist, anti-establishment right chose a billionaire con artist. Both leaders vowed to deliver policies that would reward their acolytes and punish entrenched special interests.
In the end, only those on the populist right successfully took over a major political party, and later the country.
But what did they win, really? Did they get the great economic de-rigging they demanded? A fair shake for good, wholesome folk like themselves? The draining, at last, of the swamp?
Instead, a week ago, the Trump administration began dismantling the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a post-financial crisis creation designed specifically to protect the little guy from scam artists and swamp creatures.
And then, in the wee hours of Saturday morning, the Senate passed the most plutocratic, regressive, system-rigging piece of tax legislation in decades. A bill that allows multimillionaires to pass on their estates tax-free. That offers one special break to owners of private jets and another to those who send their kids to private school.
A bill that literally takes from the poor to give to the rich.
These are not policies that either left-wing or right-wing populists clamored for, and you can see as much in the poll data. The Republican tax plan is the most unpopular piece of major tax legislation in five decades, less popular even than the Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush tax hikes.
Republicans know how unpopular it is, and they just don’t care.
Instead, they expect the populist right to be satisfied with some race-baiting tweets. Some mean-spirited, occasionally unconstitutional immigration policies. The satisfaction of having a president who makes liberals angry.
Instead of bread, the populists are told to be grateful for their circuses.
Yes, friends. Populism, at least as a political force capable of extracting meaningful policy concessions, is truly, officially, undeniably dead. The time of its demise: Saturday, Dec. 2, a little before 2 a.m.
The Washington Post