What’s the matter with the populist left?

Though it raises important issues and puts forward intriguing policy ideas, the populist left isn’t particularly popular with voters

As the Biden administration continues to find its footing in its fourth full month in office, left populists have reason to celebrate – and to despair. Their often-intriguing ideas about corporate power and economic concentration – in particular with regard to Big Tech firms like Amazon and Google – have become influential among mainstream Democratic political leaders and policymakers. Indeed, left populists have proven themselves to be quite effective at traditional forms of elite politics: winning support from critical lawmakers, pushing for key appointments to federal agencies, and building influence among journalists, think-tankers, and others in the DC policy expert class.

At the same time, however, left populist ideas have not gained much traction among voters. The end result is a paradox: a left populism that’s more elite than popular, at least when it comes to mainstream Democratic voters and the American public at large. That paradox deserves exploration and explanation, especially as Democrats chart their political and policy courses ahead of the upcoming mid-term and presidential elections in 2022 and 2024.

First, though, we need to define what we mean by the “populist left.” It’s not simply a matter of rhetoric; many Democratic political leaders and candidates of all stripes use populist themes in their campaigns. On the presidential campaign trail in 2000, for instance, then-Vice President Al Gore asserted that he stood for the “people versus the powerful.” Nor is contemporary left populism defined by the issue of increasing taxes on the wealthy and corporations – in 2008, for example, then-candidate Obama campaigned on raising taxes on those making more than a $250,000 a year. To put it another way, the populist left doesn’t have a monopoly on certain rhetorical themes and policy ideas - they share them in common among liberals and progressives of many ideological stripes. 

What distinguishes today’s left populism from its comrades on the broad center-left is its heavy – and in some cases, obsessive – focus on questions of corporate power, economic concentration, and the “curse of bigness.” The populist left’s sharp concern with these issues has yielded important insights into America’s contemporary political economy and the multifaceted dangers posed by the consolidation of economic power in the hands of a few large technology companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google. Indeed, it’s hard not to hear an echo of the original Populist Party’s contention that “the time has come when the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads” in the pronouncements of today’s populist left on Big Tech. Moreover, contemporary left populism has also produced some innovative policy ideas put forward by fresh, young thinkers like Lina Khan, a lawyer recently appointed by President Biden to the Federal Trade Commission. 

At the same time, however, left populism has failed to resonate among ordinary voters – Democrats and liberals as well as moderates and independents. Why?

  • The Trump taint. Since the mid-2010s, the very word populism came to be associated with the authoritarian right-wing demagoguery practiced by former President Trump. As other conservatives like Sen. Josh Hawley – the Missouri Republican who infamously cheered on the January 6 insurrectionists at the Capitol – take up the mantle of right-wing populism and blast Big Tech, it’s likely that moderates and liberals will shrink from describing themselves as populists or associating themselves with a program described as such.

  • Unfocused political leadership. Among Democratic political leaders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren became the most prominent champion of left populism. In her campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, she explicitly called for the break-up of Big Tech companies. But as the primary contest proceeded, her campaign shifted its main focus to addressing the concerns of the cultural left and progressive activists rather than those of the populist left. Warren went on to finish no higher than third in primaries across the country before dropping out of the race. While a number of Democrats in Congress have taken up the antitrust banner since – Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota recently dropped a 600-page tome and new proposed legislation on the subject, for instance – they have not made the issue their top political priority in the way many on the populist left would like.

  • An ambivalent public. More than anything else, however, widespread popular disinterest in the political and policy issues that animate left populism explains its failure to catch on with voters. Big Tech firms receive general positive marks from Democrats, with an early 2021 Gallup poll showing some 49 percent of Democrats holding positive views of companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook while 60 percent want increased regulation. Likewise, a June 2020 Pew poll indicating that half of all Americans want the same or less regulation of Big Tech companies, with the share of liberal Democrats saying that these companies should face more regulation falling from 65 percent to 52 percent from 2018 to 2020. When quizzed on specific companies in a December 2019 survey for The Verge, more than 90 percent of Americans held favorable opinions of Amazon, Google, and YouTube – and 71 percent viewed even Facebook favorably. What’s more, no more than a quarter of Americans felt that any of the Big Tech companies listed – Facebook and Twitter included – had a negative impact on society. While these surveys also show significant public concern about the economic and social power wielded by these companies, there’s no public consensus on the correct policy response. Just 51 percent of respondents in The Verge poll said Google and YouTube should be split, and a majority of 54 percent disagreed with the statement that it’s important to know what produces sold on Amazon are owned by the company itself. This deep ambivalence about Big Tech suggests that left populism just isn’t very popular as a political program.

None of this means the populist left doesn’t have useful insights or good policy ideas. It simply means that left populism doesn’t constitute a viable political program for the wider center-left moving forward. Most Americans like the services they get from Big Tech companies, no matter how many concerns they may have about how these companies use their personal data or how they treat their workers. As John Halpin put it in these pages, “Amazon represents basic competence and good service to many Americans” because it “provides material goods and services in a manner that many Americans have come to like and expect.”

Unlike the original Populists and their crusade against the concentrated economic power of the great industrial trusts and banks, it’s hard to see the political constituency for left populism. Where farmers had a direct material interest in curbing the power of the railroads and instituting drastic changes in monetary policy, the public interest in curbing the power of companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook remains abstract and diffuse. While it’s not difficult to find individuals and small businesses who have been harmed by the monopolistic business practices of these tech giants, far more Americans benefit from their services than lose out from their depredations. 

In other words, the public’s not buying what the populist left’s been selling. But if left populism isn’t particularly popular, it’s not antithetical to the “popularist” politics and policies set forth by the Biden administration so far. No one will win an election by calling to break up Big Tech, but that doesn’t mean that the concentrated economic power it represents isn’t a major challenge to our society and prosperity. While the populist left may not provide a viable political path forward for the Democratic Party in 2022 and beyond, the broader center-left should absorb the populist left’s best insights and policy ideas into its own thinking about the problems posed by the brave new digital world we’re all living in today.