APS News

Inside the Beltway

Increased Populism Could Undermine Support for Science

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Voters are fed up with Washington gridlock. But given their grouchiness, they’d be fed up with Washington even without any gridlock. And that’s a problem for scientific research, which depends so heavily on the federal dollar and a public that accepts federal spending as a social good.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released August 5 revealed how contemptuous Americans are of their government and their elected officials. In that survey, 51 percent of the respondents said they were ready to ditch their members of Congress in the November election — a percentage not seen for more than two decades.

Of course, unless their representatives face primary challenges, most voters won’t find they have an acceptable alternative, since gerrymandering has rendered meaningful opposition in the general election almost meaningless.

Washington isn’t the only institution that’s producing public bile. Anything big seems to do the job quite well: from Wall Street’s mega profits to business moguls’ mega paychecks.

Today at the extremes of both parties, politicians are mouthing a populist mantra. The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party has been at it since 2010. And this June, David Brat, riding the wave of populism, upset House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA-7th), a Wall Street ally, in the Republican primary, despite being outspent 20 to 1. On his way to a stunning double-digit victory Brat sounded the populist clarion when he told Virginians, “Dollars don’t vote. You do.”

Among Democrats, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has been leading the populist choir ever since she was elected in 2012. Campaigning for Democratic senatorial candidate Natalie Tennant in West Virginia this July, Warren captivated her audience when she said, “Citibank, Goldman Sachs, all those other guys on Wall Street, they’ve got plenty of folks in the United States Senate willing to work on their side. We need more people…willing to work on the side of America’s families.”

When opposite sides of the political spectrum start to use the same rhetoric, you know a perfect storm is in the making.

In such an atmosphere, scientists will have to make themselves more publicly accessible and learn to keep their outbreaks of arrogance permanently under wraps. Otherwise, they will run the risk of being written off by an increasingly cranky public. In a tempest of populism, being part of a detached elite is simply not a winning strategy.

Two recent policy debates serve to underscore the depth of anti-Washington sentiment among populist lawmakers, as well as the rift between them and establishment office holders. They are the Highway Trust Fund, which is nearly broke, and the Export-Import Bank, whose charter will expire this September.

The Trust Fund is in trouble principally for two reasons: the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax has not been raised since 1993, and cars have become more fuel-efficient.

Refilling the fund’s financial tank is difficult, if not impossible, as long as raising taxes of any kind remains a political non-starter. But every office holder knows how George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were skewered when they boosted taxes, particularly after promising not to do so. And both suffered serious political setbacks as a result: Bush lost his White House re-election bid in 1992, and Clinton triggered his party’s loss of the House in 1994.

So this time around, Congress did just about what you would expect: It punted, using one-shot budget gimmicks to provide the Trust Fund with a short-term lease on life. But before it did, Tea Party Republicans Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia floated the idea of eliminating the Trust Fund entirely and letting the states figure out how to manage highways on their own. In years past, their proposal would have generated little more than a Washington hiccup, but Lee and Graves managed to grab some Capitol Hill attention by capitalizing on tanking public trust in the federal government and growing populist sentiment.

The battle over the Export-Import Bank is a bit different, but the same mindset is driving anti-government zealots to terminate the bank’s life. The Ex-Im Bank battle pits the business community, which sees the bank as a beneficial boost to American competitiveness on the global stage, against the populists, who see it as just another public plum prime for business picking.

Established in 1934, the Bank backstops private credit for American companies engaged in exporting goods and services. And it has always had strong backing from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), two business organizations that traditionally have had deep ties to Republican leadership. But in the Ex-Im Bank case, Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif. 23rd), the new House majority leader, and Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex. 5th), chair of the House Financial Services Committee, have both said they want to put a permanent padlock on the bank’s doors.

Cutting the federal government down to size may be the new 21st century populist mantra, but it is nothing new for the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC), that recently saw its chairman, Steve Scalise (R-La. 1st), elected House Majority Whip, the no. 3 GOP post McCarthy formerly held.

The RSC has long had ties to conservative think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation and the libertarian Cato Institute, which historically have questioned federal support of science. Their argument is simple: The only reason industry has backed away from investing in long-term research is that the private sector thinks the federal government is more than willing to pick up the tab.

Of course, high-tech CEOs emphatically reject that claim. But if the U.S. Chamber and NAM lose their battle over the Ex-Im Bank, American business leaders are likely to find that Congress will tune them out on other issues, as well, including their advocacy for science

So, it will be up to the science community to take its case to the public. Otherwise it will find itself with far fewer friends in high places — or any place, for that matter.


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