Back when the nation's political attentions were focused more on Louisiana than on New Hampshire, a TV reporter interviewed a woman who said she was a fervent David Duke supporter. The reason, she said, was all those blacks on welfare—they were ruining the state. But, responded the bewildered reporter, you yourself are on welfare. How can you say that?
"They get more," the woman replied.
"They get more." It is a slogan for the new political age.
"They" are sometimes blacks, and sometimes whites. Sometimes women, and sometimes men. Sometimes the rich, and sometimes the poor. And, this season, "they" are especially foreigners—from maids and migrant workers to Honda and Hitachi. "They" are the ones who are getting what "we" want, or need, or have.
The politics of resentment are abroad in the land—and this time they aren't the monopoly of egalitarian Democrats buying votes with envy. The recession is an obvious reason for the surge of resentment. But it is, despite the pain, too fleeting to explain the whole phenomenon.
Nor is quadrennial Democratic opportunism all there is to it. They may love economic nationalism and hate "the rich," but the Democrats can hardly be held responsible for the rise of David Duke (much as they might benefit from that rise).
No, the politics of resentment spring from something less transient and more systemic. Ours has become a pie-splitting society, more concerned with dividing the wealth than with increasing it. The transformation is neither total nor irreversible, but it is dangerously advanced.
The reason for this transformation lies not in any particular platform but in a basic lack of understanding. Although few Americans would say they prefer redistribution to growth, even fewer understand where wealth comes from. And among those few, fewer still appreciate the tolerance necessary to stave off a future of resentful pie splitting.
Consider this year's populists, Tom Harkin and Pat Buchanan. For supporters of free markets, Buchanan's supply-side sermons are invigorating, Harkin's laborite gospel chilling. But though they cite different prophets, the two candidates offer the same homily.
Harkin says we should stop "sending our money and our jobs overseas." Buchanan denounces George Bush for having put the economic boom "on a fast track to Mexico." Buchanan is a more-colorful phrase-maker than Harkin. But the message is the same: We must build walls—to keep our companies in and theirs out, our jobs in and their workers out, our money in…and theirs out.
Harkin does not worry about justifying his message. His labor-union supporters have always feared the international marketplace, with its checks on their demands for higher wages and more regulations. His world view assumes a limited pie and an ongoing struggle between management and labor, evil and good, "the rich" and everyone else.
But Pat Buchanan should know better. And one suspects he does.
While he can articulate a cogent and serious case for cutting foreign aid or reducing overseas entanglements, Buchanan gets blurry and defensive when asked about trade. He opposes a free trade agreement with Mexico, supports higher textile quotas, and hints that big tariffs might be wise. But he never really explains why these are good ideas.
When George Will asked how a conservative could be such a protectionist, Buchanan answered all too literally. Rather than respond to the underlying question—how to square a call for more regulation, bigger government, and higher taxes with his putative free-market leanings—he appealed to conservative icons. Barry Goldwater opposed free trade, he said; so did Strom Thurmond and Prescott Bush, father of George. Buchanan could cite role models but no principles.
In place of ideas, he countered with the legitimate anguish of American business, overtaxed and overregulated. It isn't fair, he said, to let plants in countries without minimum-wage laws or environmental regulations compete for business with factories in the United States. We have to protect our jobs from our politicians.
Unfortunately, Buchanan's policy would trap us in Harkin's world. The threat of international competition is the one true weapon overregulated enterprise has against overweening government. When jobs go abroad—or even leave California for Nevada—regulatory enthusiasts tend to back down.
To create the walled-in America Buchanan envisions would require more than simple tariffs and a lower living standard. It would mean clipping the cables that connect the world's financial markets, imprisoning American capital. It would mean plant-closing laws to the nth degree, lifetime contracts at any cost. It would turn American employers into government employees, subject to the whims of Tom Harkin and his allies—and unable to ever escape.
It is the vision of a desperate man. And perhaps Buchanan does simply despair of political change. But one sees in his vision, and in Harkin's, a more general fear of change. And that is where the contradiction arises.
Harkin, and his less-populist fellow Democrats, would like a larger pie, if only to give them more to redistribute. They talk much of getting America moving again. But they dislike the sources of wealth—the uncontrolled and uncontrollable search for new ways of doing things, the contracts between consenting adults, the risk taking, and, yes, the quest for profit. They dislike the unpredictable and the undirected. The Democratic impulse is to plan, to regulate, to divvy up the subsidies and bring in the lawyers.
Buchanan, by contrast, professes seemingly real ardor for free markets and economic growth. But their results make him nervous, especially when they lure brown people into his neighborhood, his America. He, too, is tempted to meddle. Supporting growth but fearing change, he can't muster the tolerance that permits the very freedoms of which he is so fond.
In that, he is a true populist. We are all tempted to meddle. Other people's choices so often seem so wrong, so foolish, so risky. It is hard to say hands off.
But one exception leads to another and another and another. With a thousand cuts, one may slice a pie. But one may also kill the goose that lays golden eggs. And having done so, one will soon have nothing but the cry, "They get more."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "New Bedfellows".