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Going Native

Who is the most left-wing commentator on mainstream television?Keith Olbermann? Bill Maher? Not even close. I'm talking about aman who says both parties are "bought and paid for by corporateAmerica," and calls lobbyists "arms dealers in the war on themiddle class." This latter-day William Jennings Bryan denounces the"corporate supremacists" in Congress who write "consumer-crippling" bankruptcy laws, pass job-exporting free-trade deals, andraise the interest on college loans. He peppers his economicanalyses with quotes from the laborsupported Economic PolicyInstitute. And he recently called the GOP's effort to link aminimum-wage hike to a repeal of the estate tax "obscene." I refer,of course, to Lou Dobbs.

The flaxen-haired ex-Republican, who used to host a boosterishbusiness show, should be the answer to lefty dreams. For years,writers like Thomas Frank, author of What's the Matter with Kansas,have argued that what liberalism needs is a strong dose ofpopulism. From Joseph McCarthy to George Wallace to Bill O'Reilly,the modern American right has defined itself against culturalelites. Liberals, Frank and others argue, must fight fire withfire: attacking economic elites with as much gusto as the populistsof old.

That's exactly what Dobbs is doing. And it's working sowell--Dobbs's ratings are up 33 percent in 2006--that some of hisCNN colleagues are getting in on the act. A few weeks ago,curmudgeonly anchorman Jack Cafferty ventured that big oilcompanies were bringing down gas prices to help Republicans at thepolls. To be sure, CNN still features Wolf Blitzer and otherjust-the-facts, straight-down-the-middle types. But Dobbsincreasingly ranges across the entire network, venturing beyond his6 p.m. slot as a talking head on other shows. And he is turningmild-mannered CNN into the closest thing the United States has toan anti-corporate network.

So why aren't liberals cheering? Because, for Dobbs, taking oncorporate America means taking on corporate America's thirst forillegal-immigrant labor. Dobbs is downright obsessive about theissue, and he isn't above nativist scare- mongering--callingMexican illegal immigrants an "army of invaders" who are bringingleprosy and malaria across the Rio Grande.

To some degree, the left's response has been to treat Dobbs as twodifferent people. In August, in an article devoted to Dobbs'simmigration rants, The Nation accused him of "hysteria andjingoism" and called him "McCarthyesque." By contrast, MotherJones, in 2005, published a friendly interview with the man itcalled "mad as hell about offshore outsourcing and faith-basedeconomics." And this April, an article in the lefty journal InThese Times, which focused on Dobbs's opposition to the Dubai portsdeal, declared that, in an era of journalistic meekness, his"in-your-face defiance is a welcome antidote, and may be the waveof the future."

It may indeed. Liberals may want to separate the good Dobbs from thebad, but, on the ground, Democratic politicians are increasinglyembracing Dobbsism in full. From the industrial Midwest to theupper South, Democratic candidates are successfully wooing thewhite, working-class, often rural voters who deserted the partyafter September 11. And they're doing so by taking Dobbsian stanceson both trade and immigration. In Ohio, Senate hopeful Sherrod Brownis author of a book titled Myths of Free Trade. In Tennessee,Harold Ford-- formerly a free-trader--was one of the firstcandidates to demagogue the Dubai ports deal. In Virginia, Jim Webbhas blamed free trade for the rising gap between rich and poor.But, in almost the same breath, many Democratic challengers arestaking out immigration positions to President Bush's right. AndDemocratic incumbents are doing the same thing. As The New YorkTimes has noted, 62 Democrats backed the House's enforcement-onlyimmigration bill this September, up from 36 who supported asimilarly tough bill last year. And, in the Senate, a largemajority of Democrats just voted to build a fence along the Mexicanborder. As Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg recently told TheAmerican Prospect's Harold Meyerson, the themes working best forDemocrats this year among rural voters have "a strong nationalistcomponent," particularly on "trade and immigration."

This rising economic nationalism is directly related to the demiseof Bush's foreign policy nationalism. As his war on terrorism hascollapsed politically, the GOP has lost its hold on the hawkishindependents and Democrats who voted Republican in 2002 and 2004.It's a lot like the early '90s, when working-class Reagan Democratsand independents--bound to the GOP by shared anticommunism-- brokefree after the cold war's end and flocked to the economicnationalist candidacies of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot.

For writers like Frank, the tragedy of that era was that thefree-trading, Wall Street-friendly Bill Clinton did not useeconomic populism to permanently lure these angry white males intothe Democratic fold. Now Democrats have another chance. Butrenouncing future naftas won't be enough. Many liberals would liketo pick and choose their anti-globalization politics--arguing formore regulation of international trade and investment, but resistingpunitive measures to regulate the flow of international labor.Morally, that's perfectly defensible. But, politically, it islikely to fail. There is a reason that the late nineteenth-centurypopulists Frank admires were nativists: While low- skilledimmigration may benefit the United States as a whole, it rarelybenefits low-skilled Americans. And, for many blue-collar Americanstoday, Mexican immigration--whether legal or not-- is not justlinked to broader anxieties about globalization; it has become theprime symbol of those anxieties. In the coming years, unlessDemocrats take a hard line on immigration, their hard line on tradeis unlikely to do them much electoral good.

Economic nationalism may offer the Democratic Party its best chancein decades for an enduring reconciliation with the white workingclass. But if it happens it won't be pretty. If you embrace LouDobbs, you embrace him in full.

By Peter Beinart