Can the Populist Moment Last?

Can the Populist Moment Last?

Newly elected Senator Jon Tester, reports the New York Times, is “your grandfather’s Democrat—a pro-gun, anti-big-business prairie pragmatist whose life is defined by the treeless patch of hard Montana dirt that has been in the family since 1916.”

Virginia’s new senator, Jim Webb, is an ex-marine who served as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the navy and writes novels celebrating the fighting heritage of the Scots-Irish. He writes that “The most important—and unfortunately the least debated—issue in politics today is our society’s steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century.”

Pennsylvanians elected Senator Bob Casey, who is as much anti-abortion as he is pro-union. Former National Football League quarterback Heath Shuler of North Carolina won election to the House on a similar program, and joined the next day in a press conference with the new Ohio senator, Sherrod Brown, to denounce unfair trade agreements.

It is not an undifferentiated Democratic tide that swept these candidates into office, but a distinctly populist one. The strategy urged on the party by establishment opinion—an appeal to upscale suburbs that couples firmness on national security with economic and social moderation—repeatedly fell short. Both Webb and Tester won primaries against business-oriented opponents backed by party leaders before going on to defeat Republican senators. And the only Democratic Senate candidate in a close race who ran as an economic centrist, Tennessee’s Harold Ford, was the only one to lose.

The trend toward populism was visible among voters as well as candidates. Rural and blue-collar voters swung toward Democrats, most notably in the economically distressed belt stretching from upstate New York to Indiana. The party also picked up House seats in Kansas, Iowa, and western North Carolina.

The populist temper of the electorate has an obverse side; signs appear that the half-century-long swing toward Democrats among the wealthy and well educated may be coming to an end. From 2000 to 2004, George W. Bush gained more votes in the affluent coastal belt from southwestern Connecticut to northern Delaware than almost anywhere else. Similar phenomena appear in the 2006 returns, with Republicans holding contested House seats in upscale suburbs that had been leaning Democratic. Districts that bucked the Democratic tide contain the hedge fund havens of Greenwich and Stamford in Connecticut, the home of Microsoft outside Seattle, and some of Chicago’s wealthiest suburbs. In the strongly Democratic state of Maryland, Republican governor Bob Ehrlich improved on his 2002 performance in many affluent suburban precincts of Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties while running 10 percent behind his previous score in heavily blue-collar Baltimore County.


What accounts for the populist resurgence? Unquestionably, Democratic vote...