In 1992, country singer Travis Tritt released one of the year's hottest singles in the '90s country revival: "Lord Have Mercy on the Working Man." Penned by Greek-born songwriter Kostas (go figure), Tritt's tune had this memorable refrain:
Why's the rich man dancing
While the poor man pays the band?
The populist sentiment made sense: The first President Bush's term, marked by a deepening recession and falling wages, was just coming to an end. But Tritt's song didn't say anything about rising income inequality or corporations shipping record numbers of jobs overseas [pdf]to boost profits. Kostas and Tritt instead directed their anger at the government and taxes, a theme played out in the song's video and lyrics:
Uncle Sam's got his hands in my pockets
And he helps himself each time he needs a dime
Tritt's country ditty crystallizes perfectly the thinking behind conservatives' anti-tax crusade, now playing out in the debate over whether to extend President Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy: Forget about greedy Wall Street; your problems are in tax-and-spend Washington (even though government spending accounts for less than 20% of our Gross Domestic Product, one of the smallest shares in the world).
What's more, they claim, tax cuts aren't about helping the rich (even though the wealthy would undeniably benefit the most); it's about helping average folks. And now a handful of Democrats -- nervously eying the November elections -- are going along and joining the GOP's fight against letting the Bush tax cuts expire.
But Democrats in search of moderate votes shouldn't be so quick to buy the anti-tax line. The reality is that across the country -- even in supposed conservative strongholds like the South -- there's a strong populist current that rejects the simplistic anti-tax views of Tritt and anti-government conservatives.
In 2006, the Pew Research Center released its latest survey of political ideology in the U.S. As I reported at the time, their main point was that our usual way of breaking down the nation's electorate -- liberal/conservative, Republican/Democrat, red/blue -- grossly mangled the more complicated political views held by most people in the country.
One group that gets overlooked in our right/left thinking: populists, which Pew describes as those who "favor an active role for government in both the economic and the social spheres." They don't think corporations and "the market" should have unfettered reign, but they also favor government involvement on "morality" issues like abortion.
Populists are everywhere: In Pew's survey, populists make up 16% of the population -- making it one of the most popular ideologies in the country ("liberal" was first at 18%, "conservative" third at 16%).
Populists aren't just white guys: In fact, "populist" was the highest-ranking ideology among women and African-Americans nationally.
And populists are very big in the South: According to Pew, nearly half (47%) of populists live in Southern states.
So what do all these populists think about the Bush tax cuts which largely benefit the rich? Pew hasn't done a more recent survey, but in 2006, they didn't like them. Pew found that only 25% of populists wanted to make the Bush tax cuts permanent -- the only group with lower support were those identified as "liberals."
That was in line with the populists' overall progressive economic outlook: businesses make too much profit, NAFTA-like trade deals aren't good for the country and our nation needed to boost the minimum wage.
Populists are also a huge political swing group: 50% lean or identify as Republican; 40% lean or identify as Democrats. This suggests that when it comes to voting for candidates, Republicans have succeeded in getting many populists to chose their pro-government stance on "values" issues like abortion over their pro-government stance on economic issues like taxes.
But Democrats, take heed: If, in a straight up-and-down vote, you take a stand against a tax policy that largely benefits the wealthy, like a bill extending the Bush-era tax cuts, millions of populists (including Republicans) will be on your side.