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In the Age of Faux Populism, Where Are the Real Pitchforks?

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Americans are in a surly mood, confronting rules they feel are rigged against them. President Barack Obama captured this populist temper in his re-election campaign. He then launched his second term declaring that inequality is the "most pressing challenge of our time," and laying out a popular agenda to raise the federal minimum wage, provide pay equity for women, establish universal preschool and other initiatives that polls show the public strongly supports.  

Americans are in a surly mood, confronting rules they feel are rigged against them. President Barack Obama captured this populist temper in his re-election campaign. He then launched his second term declaring that inequality is the "most pressing challenge of our time," and laying out a popular agenda to raise the federal minimum wage, provide pay equity for women, establish universal preschool and other initiatives that polls show the public strongly supports.  

Republican obstruction, however, has blocked progress on all these - even as the House GOP last week passed Representative Paul Ryan's budget, which cuts taxes for the rich and corporations, turns Medicare into a voucher program, slashes spending on education and protects subsidies to Big Oil.

Yet it is the president's popularity that has cratered. Republicans are expected to easily retain control of the House in the November midterm elections - though Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) refuses to move bills on any of the public's agenda. The Democratic Senate majority appears endangered. Data maestro Nate Silver is making the Republicans favorites to take the Senate in the fall midterms. The New York Times reports Democrats are "scrambling to avoid disaster."

Why can Republicans block politically popular measures without paying a political cost? Is populism merely entertaining froth, all the rage in Berkeley salons but impotent in real-world politics?

In fact, populist sentiments are on the rise. But the stunted economic recovery - and big GOP money - makes it hard for Democrats to exploit them. Disarray on message pulls the populist punch. All this, ironically, helps conservative candidates peddle their own populist poses, often confusing voters.  


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