Populist Rage, Presumably

Americans are angry these days. Frank Rich says so.

Last weekend, the Huffington Post ran a full-page, bold-faced headline announcing that The New York Times’s Frank Rich had written that there was “Populist Rage Coursing Through America.”

Rich wrote: “The tsunami of populist rage coursing through America is bigger than Daschle’s overdue tax bill, bigger than John Thain’s trash can, bigger than any bailed-out C.E.O.’s bonus. It’s even bigger than the Obama phenomenon itself.”

Evidence of this populist rage, Rich noted, was clear in the “editorial pages on both ends of the political spectrum, The Wall Street Journal and The Times,” which had both called for the chauffeur-driven Daschle to step down. Daschle’s downfall, wrote Rich,

was only a red flag for the larger syndrome that much of Washington still doesn’t get. It was the source, not the amount, of his unreported income that did him in. The car and driver advertised his post-Senate immersion in the greedy bipartisan culture of entitlement and crony capitalism that both helped create our economic meltdown (on Wall Street) and failed to police it (in Washington).

Two days later, Rich’s Times colleague, Andrew Ross Sorkin, picked up on the “populist rage” angle. Referring to bank executives’ trip to the House’s Financial Services Committee Wednesday, Sorkin wrote: “Judging by the nation’s outrage at Wall Street, however, our representatives are likely to turn the hearing into a public flogging.”

For evidence of that rage, Sorkin cited a recent column by Los Angeles Times opinion writer Patt Morrison. Writing mostly about her own populist rage (“I’m a vegetarian, but I’d make an exception for a smoking plate of C.E.O. en brochette”), she also quoted a UCLA political scientist, who agreed that yes, people are angry.

So what’s missing from all three columns and the huge HuffPost ref? None of them, as far as I could tell, actually spoke to, quoted, or referenced in anyway anyone who wasn’t either ensconsed in the Ivory Tower, or also writing a column for a major national newspaper (or both).

If you’re going to diagnose America with a sweaty case of populist fever, would it have killed you to talk to an actual enraged populist? To call up a small-town mayor and ask how things are ‘round those parts? To take the train to Jersey? Is a lousy anecdotal lead too much to ask for?

Granted, there’s no easy diagnostic that determines the level of populist rage-itude in the nation. But there’s plenty of merit in talking to real people and hearing the real—presumably nuanced and rational—ways in which they’re angry, if only because all this vague talk of “populist rage” is specifically affecting some of the largest pieces of legislation that have ever passed through Congress.

According to everyone from Paul Krugman to the folks at the Financial Times, the groundswell of presumed populist anger in this country is actually determining policy and motivating legislators’ actions. The annual cap on executive pay for companies that received TARP money was largely supported by Senators speaking on behalf of the angry American taxpayers.

The folks at FT (who quote a University of Texas political scientist to affirm the existence of this rage, by the way) write that if and when Obama has to push for more TARP money, he’ll be up against a host of political obstacles motivated, to a large degree, by legislators’ fear of their constituents’ anger. According to a Times story, Sen. Claire McCaskill called the Wall Street executives “a bunch of idiots” who were “kicking sand in the face of the American taxpayer,” and, in a Huffington Post interview, added that Obama “is as insulted on behalf of the taxpayers as I am.”

If Congress is actually going to be acting based on this perception of constituent rage, it seems particularly important for the press to be precise in their reporting. Phrases like “tsunami of rage” are evocative but vague, and say nothing about how this populist anger will actually manifest itself. Mass protests? Pitchforks and torches at the White House gates? Or just getting slightly more angry than usual whenever you’re asked to pay an ATM fee?

There are lots of reasons for Americans to be enraged right now. (Sorkin helps us out with a list.) To varying extents, many Americans probably are enraged right now. But that anger is by no means monolithic. And so long as it is affecting the way business is done on the Hill, those people writing about it should leave the newsroom and get their information straight from the source.

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Haley Edwards is a writer in New York.