Keeping Populist Movements From Going In the Wrong Direction(s)

by Neil H. Buchanan

Because this column discusses populist movements, some of which are related to taxes, I will start with a reminder: The Boston Tea Party was absolutely, positively not a revolt against taxes.  It was, instead, a revolt against taxation without representation and against a regressive sweetheart deal for a politically connected corporation.

I bring up this bit of history in light of two relatively recent populist phenomena: the Occupy movement, which began in a park near Wall Street in 2011, and the Yellow Vests movement, which began last year in France in response to a proposed gasoline tax increase by the Macron government.

In the case of Occupy, the movement quickly became identified with clear leftist inclinations, whereas the Yellow Vests have been disparaged for the "vagueness of their demands and the lack of a leadership to negotiate with."  The Yellow Vests spawned some violent protests, but no one is quite sure what they really are (or were) and whether there is anything to be learned from that spasm of political anger.

Here, I want to offer a relatively brief set of thoughts about the dangers of populist movements and how they can be hijacked by bad actors.

One reason to think about these issues is that we continue to be precariously close to the invocation of a so-called Article V Convention.  Conservative activists are now only six states short of the 34 needed to call for such a convention, which has never been invoked before and is viewed on the far right (as if there is any other "right" in this country at this point) as a way to completely rewrite the Constitution.

The idea of a constitutional convention is so far right, in fact, that even the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia mocked it.  When Scalia is the moderating voice, you know you are in rarefied territory.

As an important aside, we need to constantly remind ourselves that former Ohio Governor and failed Republican presidential candidate John Kasich has spent quite a bit of his time over the past decade pushing for a constitutional convention.   He was specifically doing so to be able to add a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, but he surely knows that there is nothing that would limit such a convention only to the federal budget.

To be sure, the balanced-budget amendment is an absolutely terrible idea, no matter how it might be adopted.  There are many variations on such an amendment, but they would all create process hurdles to fiscal policy that would empower extremist minorities in Congress -- like, say, the guys who are currently blocking a spending bill for disaster relief -- to resist the will of the majority.  That is why it has to be an an amendment that would be enforced by courts: It is counter-majoritarian by design.

Beyond that, there is simply no economic case that would justify a balanced federal budget, much less a budget that had to be balanced every year.  (Why not every month, or day, or second?)  There is no good reason to force the government to pass up good public investments or to prevent it from responding to crises, and people like Kasich thus try to turn it into a political argument about not trusting Congress to be "responsible."  Their solution: Put power into the hands of the most extreme and irresponsible members of Congress.

Even so, let us imagine that a balanced-budget amendment would be a good idea.  Surely, Scalia had no objection to fiscal orthodoxy (especially when a Democrat was in the White House).  So what is the problem?  It is, of course, that even well-meaning populist movements can go tragically wrong.  Arguably (but with many, many caveats having to do with the small number of "the forgotten people" who actually support him), Donald Trump is an especially pointed example of such a tragedy, where a demagogue jumps in front of a group of justifiably angry people and turns them into an ugly mob.

I recently noted the rise on what counts as the American left of a crank economic idea called MMT (Modern Monetary Theory).  There, I further noted the anti-Federal Reserve populism that infects both the left and the right, fueled by conspiracy theories about the Fed's political independence and its supposed antipathy toward little people.  The connection to Occupy was logical, because of the anti-Wall Street element of anti-Fed sentiments, but ultimately it is not in working people's interests to allow Republican politicians to misdirect monetary policy in the same way that they have misdirected fiscal policy.

And the Yellow Vests?  There, we have a large number of people who were genuinely angry about a regressive tax.  It is possible that this anger could lead both to a better tax system and to better environmental policy, but in this case it all turned into a rebuff to Macron's efforts to use the tax system to mitigate climate change.

I have no grand conclusion to draw here, but I am reminded that "the people's energy" can be used well or used for evil.  Like everything else in politics, positive things can turn negative very quickly, making constant vigilance essential to protecting freedom and the rule of law.