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In Praise of a Reasonable Progressivism

Editors’ note: No Democratic president has won in recent decades on a platform of economic populism. But with the rhetoric of the 99 percent still in the air, and a proposal for a ‘Fair Share Tax’ at the center of his current platform, it seems President Obama might be attempting to do just that. We’ve asked a number of TNR writers to discuss whether it makes sense for Obama to run as a populist. Can a Democrat win on a populist message? Should Obama try? Click here to read the collected contributions.

Although I haven’t made a close study of it, I’m told that the “populist” themes spouted by Al Gore in 2000 and by John Kerry in 2004 did not stir the proletariat. I think it’s going to be different this year, because income inequality has finally become a topic of interest to the public, and because the GOP has become so gorgeously vulnerable in this area. It has a presidential candidate who got rich in finance, and a House majority leader who’s willing to say out loud that he’d rather tax poor people than raise taxes on rich people. God doesn’t furnish opportunities like this very often.

But I’m not sure populist is the right word for what President Obama is already doing (or, for that matter, what Gore and Kerry were doing in 2000 and 2004). I think the right word is progressive. I don’t mean “progressive” in its contemporary sense as a euphemism for “left-liberal.” I mean “progressive” in its historic sense. 

The Progressives of the early twentieth century (some of whom founded this magazine) actually started America’s discussion about income distribution; the first serious study on the topic was published in 1915 by a largely-forgotten economist named Willford King, a student of the famous Progressive economist Richard T. Ely at the famously Progressive University of Wisconsin. (To find out why it wasn’t until the Progressive Era that Americans got interested in income distribution you’ll have to read my book.) The Progressives were more like Barack Obama than the Populists were. They valued inductive reasoning and rationality, as Obama does—they were mad for statistics—and they felt more comfortable operating within the established corridors of power. Although they had their shortcomings (most famously a susceptibility to the pseudoscience of eugenics), they were freer from the racism, xenophobia, and inchoate resentment that often fueled the People’s Party. 

President Obama’s argument for the Buffett Rule, which would require millionaires to pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes, isn’t fueled by a pitchfork-waving hatred of the rich. It was a rich guy—Warren Buffett—who first suggested it! Rather, it’s an appeal to reason: It doesn’t make sense for Buffett to pay less in taxes than his secretary does. Just as people toss the phrase “class warfare” around way too casually—we’ve actually had some class warfare in this country, and people died fighting it—so, I’m starting to think, we’re too quick to call “populist” any endorsement of the idea that there needs to be some check on the wealth and power of rich individuals and rich corporations. Obama has quite plainly expressed that he aims to follow in the footsteps not of William Jennings Bryan but of Teddy Roosevelt. In the current political environment (where TR gets branded a “socialist”) that’s more than brave enough. And I say, bully to the president for going there.

Timothy Noah is a senior editor at The New Republic.