America’s Populist Turn: Who Will It Favor in 2010 Elections?

BY dchinni  March 9, 2010 at 10:48 AM EDT

In recent months, political populism has been defined by the Tea Party movement and framed by ire aimed at debt and government spending. But populism is a phrase that defies easy ideological pigeonholing, and another view of populism was on display in Oregon earlier this year.

In January, voters in that state approved tax hikes — yes, hikes — aimed at two groups that are often the target of populist anger: businesses and the wealthy. Ballot Measure #66 raised taxes on individuals making more than $125,000 and families making more than $250,000. Measure #67 raised the minimum taxes on business and corporations.

But using the Patchwork Nation breakdown of Oregon’s counties reveals just how complicated a force populism can be in the electorate, and how November’s mid-term elections may be harder to project than many imagine.

Only 11 of the 36 counties in Oregon voted for the tax increases. The majority of the “yes” votes for both measures came from the wealthier counties in the state – four of the six “Monied ‘Burb” counties and two of the four “Boom Town” counties.

So how is it a group of generally wealthier voters voted for tax increases, while for the most part people living in less wealthy counties shot down the increase? It was how the vote was framed. Proponents of the tax cast it as a choice between adequately funding public services or kowtowing to the rich and Wall Street.

“It was as if the state employees held up a puppy [symbolizing public services] and said, ‘Vote for this [tax increase], or we’ll kill this puppy,’ ” says Kip Ward, owner of the Historic Anchor Inn in Lincoln City, Ore., a small town in a “Service Worker Center” county. “They said, ‘Hit the rich and hit the greedy corporations’ ” instead.

Indeed, the ads in favor of passing Measure #67 focused on how “big corporations” enjoy the same tax rate that they did in 1931 while costs for middle class Oregonians rose across the board.

Voices on the political left have hailed the passage of the measures as a victory for liberal populism, but the truth might not be that simple.

“There was an obvious divide, and given the letters to the editor we were getting and the turnout for our local debate on the topic, I was frankly surprised that the measures passed,” writes Allyson Longueira, editor of The News Guard, a weekly newspaper. “What that indicates to me is that the people who were against it, while clearly in the minority based on the vote, were simply the most vocal.

Both measures actually passed the “Service Worker” hub that is Lincoln County, but on the whole the state’s “Service Worker Centers” were solidly against the measures: 10 of 13 of those counties voted no on both. The same was true with all seven of the state’s rural “Tractor Country” counties. Both those county types have lower-than-average median incomes and tend to be more conservative.

The results in these community types point to the large and growing populist sentiment on the political right, which has been well documented from tea parties to health care reform town halls.

But the result points to frustration on the other side of the political spectrum as well. As the great recession drags on, the Oregon measures indicate there may be large blocks of more moderate and wealthy voters who — while perhaps less vocal — are waiting for their chance to vote, too.

They may be less focused on “stopping big government” than “ensuring proper funding.”

The nation’s “Monied ‘Burb” counties are populous — about 68 million people — and they went heavily for President Obama in 2008, by more than 10 percentage points overall.

Read the rest of this post on the Christian Science Monitor’s Patchwork Nation site.