Economics: Heartland Conservatives favor Populist Policies

by Judy Ferro

You don’t find many people with more impressive liberal/progressive/ Democratic credentials than Robert B. Reich.

Reich was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. He’s a Professor of Public Policy at U.C.-Berkeley. And he’s chair of Common Cause, a grassroots organization seeking disclosure of campaign financing, restrictions on lobbying, and less media consolidation.

Reich recently toured the “American heartland,” meeting conservative Republicans and Tea Party members in states such as Ohio, Kansas, Missouri, and North Carolina.

He was pleased to find many agree with him on major economic issues.

They don’t like lobbyists getting special deals from the government.

Many are “livid” about “factory farms…that abused land and cattle, damaged the environment, and ultimately harmed consumers.”

Many are angry that the government had bailed out Wall Street and not homeowners during the housing bust of 2008-9. Their communities had been devastated while Wall Street bankers became richer than ever before.

Many are against hedge fund managers getting a special income tax rate about half of what others in the highest bracket pay.

Many don’t like seeing big business dumping millions into politics since the Citizens United decision removed limits—and disclosure—on election activity planned independently from candidates or their party.

Most opposed trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which make it easier for big corporations to ship jobs overseas and bypass consumer protection laws.

Reich points out that the Pew Research center has found that more Republicans favor increased government spending on programs such as Social Security, Medicare, education and infrastructure rather than favor cutting those programs.

He concludes that what Heartland Conservatives want are economic programs that help the “little guy” and strengthen communities.

“They don’t oppose government per se…Rather, they see government as the vehicle for big corporations and Wall Street to exert their power in ways that hurt the little guy.

“They call themselves Republicans but many of the inhabitants of America’s heartland are populists in the tradition of William Jennings Bryan.”

In other words, Reich discovered that the most Republicans—like most Democrats—are concerned that government policies of the last decades are shrinking the middle class.

Democrats have a populist champion in Bernie Sanders who is making Hillary Clinton more aware of their issues.

What options do populist Republicans have? Most Tea Party politicians oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership but haven’t acted to limit Citizens United and special deals for the rich or their corporations. In fact, they are competing for the sponsorship of the Daddy Warbucks of the Republic party.

As a result, many Republicans this year are favoring political outsiders. Reich points out that Donald Trump has said many of the right things. He’s supported imposing tariffs on American companies that send manufacturing overseas, dumping TPP, raising taxes on hedge-fund managers, and protecting social security.

But outsiders seldom get anything done in D.C. John F. Kennedy put forth a strong domestic program but ended up mainly educating the American people about the need. After Kennedy’s death, Lyndon Johnson—a former Speaker of the House—shepherded Kennedy’s programs through Congress.

Experience is important.

Would the populist Republicans of the American Heartland vote for Bernie Sanders? That may depend on whether they place primary importance on economic issues or on social and cultural ones.

Reich’s latest book—his 14th—is “Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few.” His film, “Inequality for All” is available on Netflix, iTunes and Amazon