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In the American political lexicon, few words are as prevalent — or as confusing — as “populism.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) gets described as a populist because she wants to curb the power of corporations and increase Social Security benefits. So does Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who thinks small businesses are crippled by “an explosion of regulation” and has called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” that should be replaced by individual savings accounts.
Journalists, meanwhile, routinely affix the P word to liberals who want to raise taxes on the rich and to conservatives who claim higher taxes just benefit liberal special interests.
The same word is applied to office-holders whose ideologies are poles apart because populism in the United States is not a philosophical creed, like liberalism or conservatism. It is a mode of persuasion — by which left and right compete in the never-ending battle to define the virtuous many and the immoral few.
Populists on both sides view ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class or occupation; see their elite opponents — “the establishment” — as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter. In a nation where the people are supposed to rule, the evolving contest to fill those vague yet emotionally powerful terms with meaning helps explain who gets to govern the nation and for what ends.
The first Populism — with a capital P — was the name of a radical third party. Near the end of the 19th century, a mass movement largely composed of small farmers and wage-earners from the rural South and West organized the People’s or Populist Party. The group sought to challenge the “plutocrats,” who were to blame for corrupting politics and impoverishing the masses. The original Populists thought the only virtuous citizens were “producers” — those who worked hard, usually with their hands, for the common good.
“Wealth belongs to him who creates it,” intoned Ignatius Donnelly, one leader of the new party. Putting the same principle in harsher, biblical terms, Donnelly quoted St. Paul: “If any will not work neither shall he eat.”
The economic program of the original Populists was decidedly left-wing. It called on Congress to pass a progressive income tax, inflate the money supply to aid debtors and nationalize the railroads — all to “restore the Government of the Republic to the hands of the ‘plain people’ with whom it originated.”
The Populist Party won control of state governments in Kansas and Colorado, elected 45 congressmen and briefly threw a scare into both major parties before fading away. But its rhetoric and policies endured. Populists had a major influence on the Progressives and New Dealers who constructed the modern regulatory welfare state during the first half of the 20th century. Like Warren today, they insisted “the people” need a potent and well-funded federal government to raise living standards and hold the “economic royalists,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt once called business tycoons, in check.
During the Cold War, however, populism began to slip its liberal moorings. Senator Joseph McCarthy and his fellow Red hunters accused rich Hollywood screenwriters and Ivy League-educated State Department officials of cozying up to, even spying for, the Communist enemy. This New Right’s conspiratorial, anti-elitist rhetoric, argued such prominent intellectuals as the historian Richard Hofstadter and the sociologist Daniel Bell, resembled that of the People’s Party — if aimed at completely different targets.
Mainstream journalists, who thought as little of bygone agrarian rebels as they did of McCarthy’s demagoguery, echoed the intellectuals’ critique. So was born the notion that conservatives could talk populism as naturally as their opponents on the left.
Then, the multiple crises which rocked the nation in the 1960s and ‘70s spawned populisms from all points on the ideological spectrum. Buffeted by racial conflict, a losing war in Vietnam and a long economic downturn, Americans grew mistrustful of nearly every kind of authority. Their sour mood boosted Ralph Nader’s campaign against unsafe cars produced by General Motors, Alabama Governor George Wallace’s assaults on “pointy-headed bureaucrats” and school busing, and Jerry Falwell’s crusade against the “secular humanist” elite. It also helped lift former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, a one-time peanut farmer who promised “a government as good as its people,” into the White House in 1976.
Decades later, what the media once treated as novel has become an unreflective habit. When nearly anyone who rails against “the establishment” — political, economic, cultural — in the name of “the people” gets labeled a populist, the term risks becoming more a lazy tic than a useful trope.
But how a politician or movement activist defines those malleable terms still matters. Cruz views ordinary Americans primarily as a group of devout Christians who think their nation is being destroyed by a free-spending, job-killing, godless liberal elite. So it’s logical for him to despise Obamacare and call for most Environmental Protection Agency regulations to be scrapped.
For Warren, what characterizes the common folk are their economic hopes and woes. They work hard to earn enough money to buy a nice house, send their children to college and enjoy a secure retirement. But Wall Street gambles with their mortgages, and employers refuse to raise their pay — as the Dow Jones Average soars. So she champions the right of labor to organize and argues for lower interest rates on student loans and stricter rules on how banks can invest other people’s money.
The popularity of populist talk is unlikely to wane anytime soon. It’s been essential to political conflict in the United States for most of the nation’s history. Populism’s ideologically promiscuous nature practically insures that, for some future group of partisans, yesterday’s tribunes of the “plain people” will become tomorrow’s immoral establishment.
That’s a good thing too. At root, populism is the language of people who engage in politics to protect and advance the imperishable ideals of the American republic which they believe — often with good reason — that the powerful and the privileged have betrayed.
As the great historian C. Vann Woodward wrote almost 60 years ago, “One must expect and even hope that there will be future upheavals to shock the seats of power and privilege and furnish the periodic therapy that seems necessary to the health of our democracy.”
Michael Kazin’s most recent book is “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.” His other books include “The Populist Persuasion: An American History” and “A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan.” He is editor of Dissent [www.dissentmagazine.org] and teaches history at Georgetown University.
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