Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Populist Moment

Decades ago, the historian E.P. Thompson said something to the effect that "the people need to see themselves experimenting with democratic forms." There was something of that in Congress today, when Rep. Barney Frank and others in the House of Representatives grilled the bankers. Americans could see the "malefactors of great wealth" questioned by their elected representatives. Whatever policy comes out of it, it was good political theater--a demonstration of the idea, so important to the health of the Democratic Party, that government can tame the raging powers of capitalism. A populist moment is at hand.

Speaking later on the Rachel Maddow Show, Frank said that he planned to bring the financial industries to heel as Roosevelt did in the New Deal. I can only wish him well. (It is interesting to note that the account of the same hearing in the New York Times, unlike that on the Maddow Show, depicted the event as a more tepid affair.)

For too long, worship of Wall Street has gone relatively uncontested. But now, in The Street's failure, politicians are voicing the anger of their constituents. By itself, of course, this doesn't make good policies.

But the key to winning a fight as big as President Obama's struggle over the future of the American economy lies in setting the terms of the debate. For Obama, that means overcoming decades of market fundamentalism and anti-regulatory cant that have dominated the Republican Party and won over too many Democrats. (Think of the Clinton years.)

The Democrats in the House made a good start. They identified the bad guys, proposed government solutions, and voiced anger that millions feel. All this may not finish the fight, or even guarantee the outcome. But it's a good start.