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What is populism? From the History Channel

Guest Commentary: Populism is an Expression of Optimism

A local Republican urges his party to embrace what unites regular Americans

Guest Commentary: Populism is an Expression of Optimism

A local Republican urges his party to embrace what unites regular Americans

Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro presented his budget and list of priorities in February, including a proposal to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 per hour by 2026. Years ago, I would have been among the free marketeers crying foul about the burden this would place on small businesses and the way this would make Pennsylvania less competitive with other states in the hunt for good jobs. But good jobs don’t pay minimum wage, and I’ll bet no one making this argument knows anyone, except for maybe a teenager with a summer job, who makes anything close to minimum wage.

The idea that anyone can live on $7.25 per hour is almost as ridiculous as the idea that anyone can live on $15 per hour. Do the math. Consider a family of three, like mine. If my wife and I both work full-time for $15 per hour, we each make $600 per week, for a total family income per month of $5,200 before the city wage tax and the state wage tax (both about $200 each) and a couple hundred dollars of federal income tax. An additional $985 comes out for health insurance. So we’re down to about $3,652.

Economic and political ideals can make you into one kind of person. Personal experience, real life, can turn you into another.

The average rent in Philadelphia for a two-bedroom apartment is $2,041; utilities are at least $155, and those trips to the grocery store, after three consecutive years of over 20 percent cumulative inflation, cost, easy, $800 per month. So we’ve got $656 left.

We send our daughter to a parochial school at $562, pay car insurance of $117, cell phones at $135, and basic cable and broadband at $200. So, we’re negative $358 and we haven’t even considered what to do with our child when she’s not in school and we’re at work. We haven’t put gas in the car. And we haven’t done any of the things that make living life in the city worthwhile, or been able to save for an emergency.

Life at the low end

But you make it work. This is the reality now. Gone are the organic milk and the free-range eggs. Breakfast is going to be different. As is grocery shopping. My wife shopped at four stores last week, getting lunch meat here and chicken breasts there, all based on sales and electronic coupons. I feel like a pompous ass even writing this, because that’s how most families shop. It’s how my mom shopped. It’s how everyone at the ShopRite at Whitman Plaza seems to shop, carts left strewn about the aisles the way cars are parked on Oregon Avenue. Everybody jostling for a space before the shelves, or standing in line for a rain check.

Then there’s the insidious truth of life at the low end. That full-time job. Those 40 hours a week that, with increasing frequency, you can’t get. I’ve had a long career in retail but was recently laid off. The company explained they were eliminating full-time workers and hiring more part-time, seasonal staff. This is happening everywhere. Almost every job opening I’ve seen is for part-time, no benefits positions. Even management positions.

When the hours you work each week are cut you make less. You can’t leave to find another job because, if you leave, you’re disqualified from unemployment. But the government’s employment numbers still look great — as the low end tumbles lower.

This has led me to change my mind.

Populism is the future

Decades ago I was an executive at a financial services firm. Then a long illness made that career impossible. I’m a proud American, a solid Republican, and, after spending a few months on disability, found a lower-paying job I could handle. Like so many people in the working class, I’ve done what it takes to get by. But my intellect never quite aligned with my reality. Economic and political ideals can make you into one kind of person. Personal experience, real life, can turn you into another.

I’ve always been a political and economics junkie and spent years as an acolyte of Hayek and Milton Friedman. I had a bumper sticker that asked, “What would Ayn Rand do?” I thought globalization and shareholder profit maximization were the answers. I knew intuitively that capital followed the lowest costs to achieve the highest return. I believed we should offshore production of things like bikes so that they would be affordable for all kids.

But when I was a kid, in the era before the worship of globalization, we all had bikes. Bikes that would last and hold up as we raced down hills, braked just before we reached the creek, or even jumped over it. Yes, they were made in America. And yes we flew red, white, and blue streamers from the handlebars. Today, you get a foreign-made, $98 shaky piece of aluminum and plastic from Walmart if you can afford it.

Populism is the future of the Republican Party, if the party wants a future at all.

Globalization has made this possible, and globalization has made me question everything.

The old ideas of globalization and unregulated free markets on one level still make sense to me. The Federal Reserve, in their hesitancy to lower interest rates, won’t move until the unemployment rate ticks higher. Then things will be better. By one set of criteria, this is desirable. By another, it’s repulsive. To reconcile the two, ideas such as sensible regulation that favors labor, tariffs and worker sovereignty are necessary. Left conservatives get this. Populism is the future of the Republican Party, if the party wants a future at all.

In 2021 I was a Burke to Buckley fellow of the National Review Institute. A group of us would meet weekly at the Union League and have drinks, dinner, and long Socratic conversations about conservative principles with some of the brightest minds from the conservative elite. I loved it. I loved the people. They were kind, generous, curious, and they truly cared about the state of the country and ways to make it better. And few, if any, had any idea what life was like for the working class. In what I now view as a sad, unintentional way, they were as tone deaf as the progressive elites.

So, economically at least, I align with the populists. I recoil when they shout anti-immigrant slogans (you can demand that illegal immigration stop immediately without being racist or xenophobic), deny science (Climate change is real; yes, progressive approaches to stop it are too expensive and will increase inequality both overseas and at home, but it’s real), or engage in conspiracy theories (Taylor Swift psyops?). I like the insistence on moral absolutism as opposed to the relativism progressives attach to everything from gender to free speech to equality. And I subscribe, fully, to the doctrine of American exceptionalism.

The answer for the Republican Party, and inevitably for the entire country, is to stop equating populism with worn-out socialist criticism. Stop fearing it as some monster lurking in an insurgent right or a socialist left. It’s all about a reconsideration of government policy and business behaviors that have increased inequality, eroded quality of life for the working class, and made many, especially many young people, believe that the American dream of a good job, a stable marriage, an affordable home, and a bright future for our children is out of reach.

In the best sense, populism is an expression of optimism. Things can be better for the working class. Those people fighting back against the elite in both parties haven’t given up. If they had, they wouldn’t be bothered. Yes, they want what is fairly theirs, and they’re willing to work for it. They don’t want to be given things they don’t deserve, but through a dedication to freedom, opportunity and hard work, they’re willing to take what they do deserve: the promise and the faith that is found in our communities. All of us willing to do the work should have it.

George Hofmann writes the newsletter Practicing Mental Illness. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, their daughter, too much coffee and a rather exuberant dog.

The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who represent that it is their own work and their own opinion based on true facts that they know firsthand.


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