Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

A Time for Serious Populism

Senators J.D. Vance and Marco Rubio have taken a swing at the root of what led to the East Palestine train disaster.

Train derailment in East Palestine

In his State of the Union address earlier this month, President Joe Biden sounded about as populist as he ever has. “My economic plan is about investing in places and people that have been forgotten,” he declared. “Amid the economic upheaval of the past four decades, too many people have been left behind or treated like they’re invisible.” Turning to the home viewer, he added: “Maybe that’s you, watching at home. You remember the jobs that went away. And you wonder whether a path even exists anymore for you and your children to get ahead without moving away. I get it.”

Good stuff. The train disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, was an opportunity for Biden to show that he really “gets it,” by coming to the rescue of America’s forgotten men and women, and holding accountable the market and governmental elites responsible for their misery. But the president utterly flubbed it—giving an opening to two of the GOP’s most serious populist rising stars to step into the breach.


While the Biden administration declined to declare the train derailment an emergency, and while his transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, was busy lamenting the outsize share of white men in construction jobs (eye roll), Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and J.D. Vance of Ohio published a letter going to the root of the crisis: corporate greed and under-regulation.

Wrote the two lawmakers in a letter to Buttigieg: “We request information from the U.S. Department of Transportation regarding its oversight of the United States’ freight train system and, more generally, how it balances building a safe, resilient rail industry across our country in relation to building a hyper-efficient one with minimal direct human input.”

The lawmakers pointed to complaints from workers and industry observers blaming so-called precision-scheduled railroading, or PSR, a system used to minimize labor costs by the rail companies like Norfolk Southern, which operated the train that derailed in Ohio. As Rubio and Vance noted, and as the New York Times reported in the wake of the accident, U.S. rail operators such as Norfolk Southern now operate with 25 percent to 30 percent fewer workers than they did just a few years ago. With PSR, each car carries more weight on average, boosting the risk and severity of potential accidents. Rubio and Vance want to determine if federal regulators have taken it too easy on profit-hungry railroads deploying PSR. Kudos.

Two aspects of this worth celebrating:

The first is the intelligence of the senators’ inquiry to Buttigieg. Too often, going back to Jacksonian democracy, American populism has taken a sledgehammer to political-economic problems where scalpels are called for. In other cases, populists focus on the hot-topic, flying-sparks aspects of a controversy—the kind of stuff that gets you on Fox News—to the detriment of deeper issues. Thus, for example, the question of Big Tech censorship becomes solely about Hunter Biden’s laptop shenanigans, without getting much into Section 230 reform, antitrust, the destruction of local news at the hands of Wall Street, and the like. Here, however, Rubio and Vance show a granular, policy-oriented form of leadership that could prompt real reform.

Second, note the critique of the neoliberal political economic model baked into the Rubio-Vance letter. Under neoliberalism—according to which government exists for the sake of the market—firms have been allowed to shift a disproportionate share of the downsides of doing business to labor (and to customers and communities). The systematically low wages that characterize the bottom half of the U.S. labor market are an example of this, leaving workers in a perpetual state of precarity and forcing the taxpayer to pick up the pieces through welfare. PSR is another example.

By homing in on PSR, Rubio and Vance are making an important break with not just the establishment GOP—but even many of their fellow populists, who complain about corporate power and then turn around and lament the rise of the modern administrative state. In doing so, the latter camp harkens back to the individualism and romance for the small that have long been features of American resistance to corporate misrule. But complex economies require complex regulations and regulators who are empowered to tame market actors whose gargantuan size would otherwise permit terrible abuses, against which the little guy is defenseless.

This was the reality of the U.S. economy following the Industrial Revolution through the 1930s. More autonomy, more individualism, and smaller government weren’t up to the task. It prompted Theodore Roosevelt to fume about those who would seek “to remedy by more individualism the concentration that was the inevitable result of already existing individualism.” By putting their finger on profit-maximizing hyper-efficiency as the potential culprit behind East Palestine’s suffering, Rubio and Vance are following in Teddy’s venerable reformist footsteps—and showing what serious populism looks like.