The Many Faces of Populism
Tuesday, February 26, 2008 at 7:42 pm
Democratic Populism is all the rage. As we enter the final phase of the caucuses and primaries, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) are competing for anxious blue collar and middle-class voters in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Since John Edwards dropped out of the race, both candidates have promised to restore economic security.
The Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. argues that the campaigns are indebted to the legacy of the late Minnesota senator, Paul Wellstone, the “affable populist,” who Dionne says influenced their message. This, he says, is “salutary for Democrats.”
But recent efforts to develop a Democratic populism have usually fallen flat. Populism has become a default position for Democratic presidential candidates since the Reagan Revolution. Walter F. Mondale spoke the populist idiom in his 1984 presidential campaign, only to go down to Ronald Reagan’s claim that it was “Morning in America.” Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis adopted populism late in the 1988 campaign as his technocratic message fizzled. That didn’t play well either. When Vice President Al Gore tried to sound like William Jennings Bryan in his 2000 bid for the presidency, many voters saw this as another example of how Gore was willing to say anything to win. John Edwards encountered the same problem this year.
One major challenge is that the populist appeal takes on a different tone in different parts of the country. In Ohio and Pennsylvania, working- and middle-class Americans are largely concerned about the exodus of jobs overseas. High unemployment and the mortgage crisis rank high on their list of concerns. In Texas, however, immigration is a far greater concern to the same group of voters.
Another challenge is that a large part of the Democratic electorate is now middle class. Populism can no longer just focus on helping poor farmers or blue-collar workers. Many Democratic voters live in the suburbs, wrestling with economic anxieties like mortgage burdens, professional job insecurity and health care costs. Rather than ignore this demographic change, the Democratic candidates need to talk about how a new populism can help this part of the population.
In addition, Democrats need to square economic populism with the critiques that they have made about government intervention. Economic populism is based on an acceptance of government. But Democrats are now the party of Bill Clinton, who said, “The era of big government is over.” These candidates need to think how there can be a populism without a philosophy that comfortably embraces the virtues of government. It might be a different kind of government intervention than in the 1930s and 1960s — one that relies more on subsidies, targeted investment and incentives than direct regulation. But that needs to be spelled out.
At the recent debate in Texas, the Democratic candidates talked about how they would deal with these challenges. Hillary Clinton outlined a number of programs that offered help to citizens — in ways that didn’t appear to be increasing the size of the government. She made a pitch to have a moratorium on home foreclosures for a minimum of 90 days, as well as a freeze on adjustable rate loans. On his Web site, Obama has called for funding work-force training programs—as opposed to New Deal public works programs—that would help citizens find high-paying private-sector jobs.
The current efforts to define a Democratic populism have great potential because they tap into a powerful political tradition. Populism has had many faces. The highpoint for populism occurred in the 1890s, when a Populist Party formed and pushed for the interests of impoverished rural farmers. It championed inflationary monetary policies that would increase farmer income. It also pushed for radical monetary reforms to weaken Wall Street. “The People’s Party,” said Tom Watson in 1892, “is the protest of the plundered against the plunderers — of the victim against the robbers.”
After winning a million votes in 1892, however, the Populists foundered when the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan, offered many Populist proposals during his 1896 run for the presidency. Populism would live on through progressive-era Republicans (Theodore Roosevelt) and New Deal Democrats (Franklin D. Roosevelt) who embraced many policies and themes from the Populist Party. Throughout the 20th century, many issues promoted by economic populism remained pivotal.
Populism also had a darker side. Some 19th-century Populists made racist appeals. Democrats like South Carolina Rep. Ben Tillman championed the cause of poor white farmers, not just through promises of economic policy but also by attacking African-Americans.
There was another burst of populism during the 1960s — though far different style. In response to the conflict over Civil Rights and Vietnam, the New Left promoted the empowerment of citizens as they railed against an unholy alliance among big business, big government and the military. The New Left made community activism and democratic participation hallmark claims. They called for “participatory democracy.” They were not as focused on economic issues as the Populist Party, and talked about the detrimental effect large bureaucratic institutions had on the health of the polity.
The racist aspects of Populism did not disappear by any means. George C. Wallace revived this in his 1968 run for the presidency, tapping into Southern Democratic votes by lashing out against Civil Rights. Wallace — who as governor of Alabama physically tried to prevent the integration of the University of Alabama in 1963 — combined promises of economic assistance with a staunch condemnation of Civil Rights. Wallace won five Southern states and 46 electoral votes. When he ran again, in 1972, he condemned “briefcase-carrying bureaucrats” who try to “run your lives.”
Yet, even as conservatives attacked the New Left, they embraced much of their populist appeal. In the 1970s and 1980s, conservative populism claimed to represent the interests of average citizens as they attacked the federal government and cultural institutions like Hollywood. According to the direct mail guru Richard Viguerie, “the liberals have had control not only of all three branches of government, but of the major universities, the three major networks, the biggest newspapers, the news weeklies, and Hollywood.” Through their populist rhetoric, conservatives made inroads into constituencies who had traditionally voted Democratic based on their economic interests. Reagan tapped into this kind of populism as he drew many former Democrats in the South to vote Republican.
Today’s populism is harder to characterize. Republican Mike Huckabee has offered a familiar version as he reaches into the tool-kit of the conservative movement. Huckabee, who often attacked the “Washington to Wall Street power axis,” promised to use the bully pulpit of the presidency–rather than regulations–to impose pressure on corrupt CEOs. He also says that a national sales tax would help average Americans. Restoring traditional cultural values, he says, will help strengthen economically torn communities.
But Obama and Clinton are trying to make a different appeal. Both are “new Democrats” who have been influenced by Bill Clinton and his style in their acceptance of the virtues of free markets and their belief in limited power of government. While they have criticized Bill Clinton’s agenda—calling for reforms on NAFTA and promoting new domestic programs—they have not radically departed from his basic framework of centrist liberalism.
Besides the challenges of translating populism for the modern political age, Democrats who want to reinvigorate a populist appeal need to grapple with an age-old problem. The policies that populists promote are often simplistic or vague. And populism easily serves as a vehicle for ambitious politicians who feed off the voters’ hurts and anxieties. Once in office, populist Democrats have often betrayed their egalitarian promises.
None of the challenges should dissuade Obama or Clinton’s efforts to tap into this tradition. Rather, it should serve as a reason for them to think seriously about what they are doing and the kinds of programs they will call for this fall. Democrats have an opportunity to regain control of both the White House and Congress, and perhaps restore some of the political power they have not had since the 1960s. To do so they will need to construct the same kind of governing philosophy that conservatives have offered since Reagan.
If Democrats just use the old language without thinking through the new political realities, the message will surely disappoint. However, if the Democratic nominee can construct a new version of economic populism that explains how the party can ease middle-class insecurity without requiring excessive government, they might find a powerful argument to convince voters that their party has a better chance to help average citizens than the GOP.
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