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Where the Left and Right Join Hands

September 21, 2009

It would be pleasant, and a bit of a hoot, to imagine our hardened lefties and right-wingers holding hands, swaying in unison and singing Kumbaya. Impossible, you say? Downright silly? Well, yes and no. In the unexpectedly polarized Age of Obama — with its noisy town-hall rants, radio demagogues and fiery online diatribes — such an overripe expression of sociopolitical harmony seems to be out of the question. And yet…

I’ve noticed some striking similarities between certain sectors of the left and right. Of course, you won’t see a HuffPost blogger from San Francisco cozying up to the nearest Wall Street Journal columnist anytime soon. But down in the less exalted regions of our populace, where the money flows less freely and virtuous Americans fret about their futures, a strange and forbidden sort of union seems to be taking shape. It hasn’t happened yet, and it might scare the pants off our more elite commentators if it does. But the vibrations are starting to resound across our suffering republic, and some of us are picking them up on our internal radio receivers.

I’m talking about grassroots populism, a movement that has bubbled up to the surface from the masses of downcast, angry, alienated citizens across the political spectrum — ordinary Americans who want their country (and money) back. This movement is revolutionary, it’s unprecedented in my lifetime, and the elites can no longer ignore it.

Right-wing populists and left-wing populists don’t agree on everything, naturally. You can still find them raging against their own separate and irreconcilable hobgoblins (right-wing populists hate illegal immigrants, left-wing populists hate racism). But their anger merges and swirls like a newly spawned tornado around some important common issues.

The populists from both camps agree that the federal government is spending us into oblivion, racking up debts that even our most brilliant yuppie grandchildren won’t be able to repay. They agree that our elected representatives are essentially puppets operated by the lobbyists who fund their campaigns. And they’ve concluded that our economic system has been rigged, like some great sinister casino, so that the house wins every time. Countless billions of our money to bail out the very banks that decimated our life savings! Eight-figure bonuses for evil investment bankers who masterminded the crapshoot!

Frank Rich, the generally doctrinaire liberal columnist for The New York Times, recently observed that American politics is no longer about the struggle of right versus left, but of ordinary Americans against the elite. Right-wing preachers like Sean Hannity can no longer convince their congregation to support Wall Street, while President Obama can’t seem to persuade his base that his colossal expenditures will halt the Great Recession.

The sages of our public commentariat still prefer to organize our body politic as if they were setting up an orchestra: liberals and socialists over on the left, conservatives on the right, and moderates like us in (where else?) the middle. I confess to the same habit, and I also confess that I’m finding it less and less applicable to our peculiar time and place.

I never thought I’d catch myself agreeing with Frank Rich about anything, but maybe a Great Recession makes for strange political bedfellows. Very strange. (Good night, Frank. Turn out the light, will you?)

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