Ten months ago, I declared it the “year of the pitchfork.” Season may have been more appropriate, as the term seems to re-enter the national conversation every winter, bastardized by journalists who try to “explain” populism in near anthropological terms. People are “scared,” they tell us. Fear breeds anger breeds irrationality. From there, the explanations really break down.
Earlier this evening on Hardball, Chris Matthews offered this definition: “That’s what a populist is, you have to challenge the whole way things are done. You gotta go against the institutions, banks, government, politicians… you have to have this whole ‘I’m an outsider, you’re no good – you’re an insider.’” Yup. Populists don’t actually have a set of beliefs, just a visceral anger about, ya know, “things.”
E.J. Dionne does try to narrow it down a little bit in his column, calling it “the most overused and misused word in the lexicon of commentary,” and later defining populists as those “who stand up for the interests and values of average citizens.” Still murky, but an improvement over the blind anger theory. He also calls out the “fake populism” that “disguises a defense of the interests of the powerful behind crowd-pleasing rhetoric.” Again, fair, but not all that insightful.
Politico had a link that interested me: “What makes a Populist? by Michael Kazin.” Kazin is one of the (if not THE) most recognized writers on Populism; he wrote a very good biography on WJB and, earlier I believe, a book called The Populist Persuasion. He was one of the essayists in Newsweek’s cover story during last year’s Pitchfork Season, and is the go-to guy for insight on the subject. Click. And the link takes me to a paragraph that explains that populism is a term that has been applied to politicians as disparate as George Wallace, Ross Perot, and Jesse Jackson. Then he asks people to read The Populist Persuasion. So much for insight from Kazin on this one…
So can Populism actually be defined as an ideology, separate from stylistic populism which has basically just come to mean something either folksy or feisty, or just downright angry? If E.J. is generally right – that populism is standing up for the interests and values of average citizens – how does that translate ideologically?
A few thoughts on that.
Feeling a bit of the Populist bug today (and knowing I would have to spend an hour in a coffee shop waiting for a meeting) I brought my old Bryan biography with me to Annapolis. Had a chance to re-read the first and last chapter and was once again taken by quite a few passages. First, is there ever a better example of Populism vs. Anti-Populism then the battle between Bryan and H.L. Mencken?
To quote Kazin:
[Mencken] had little respect for politicians, particularly those who professed their undying ardor for the common folk.
A few paragraphs later:
Mencken’s loathing was driven by fear. He predicted that Bryan would become a saint to millions of ‘yokels’ outside the big cities who were intent on turning America over to the KKK and like-minded regiments of Bible-spouting youths. The specter of the theocratic state run by idiots has haunted secular liberals ever since. [emphasis added]
It only takes Kazin another paragraph to note the irony:
As his correspondence makes clear, Mencken was a lifelong anti-Semite with a reverence for German culture so strong, it blinded him to the menace of Nazism. He also hurled acid opinions at Franklin D. Roosevelt through the 1930s.
Yeah, a great hero for liberals. But, at least among most liberals I know, it really is Mencken who has won the battle. Culture, not ideology, is what matters. The KKK is to be hated for their ignorance and their low social status, not for their cruelty and bigotry.
The fact that Bryan – who lost the liberal legacy battle (and to Mencken!) – was the most radical of all major contemporary political figures with the possible exception of Eugene Debs is irrelevant. He was a small-town, uncultured rube with an unruly band of ignorant followers.
I recently finished “Blood of the Liberals” by George Packer in which he makes a similar observation. Packer was the grandson of a Southern Populist Congressman in the early 20th century, and the son of parents representative of the mid-century Rational Left. He gives a “quick and partial list of some of the beliefs I was raised on” which include the following:
The most crucial social distinction isn’t money but education. To be educated means that whatever your political views and income level, you have a set of cultural traits and tastes that make you someone who could sit comfortably at our dinner table.
The working class and the lower middle class don’t exist, except in cultural terms, as, for example, the people throwing rocks and screaming curses at the Boston school buses bringing black students to white high school. They are the least interesting, least attractive people in America.
(On the latter point, Packer recalls asking his mother if she would allow him to be bused to an inferior junior high school, and she said that she wouldn’t, adding that “education meant more to us than to people in South Boston.”)
All interesting, and I’m sure somehow relevant, but also not really ideological. For that, I guess I defer to Christopher Lasch. Lasch wrote a series of books from the ’60s until his death in the mid-’90s, including the 1970s best-seller “The Culture of Narcissism.” Increasingly throughout his career, he began to see progress as the enemy of Leftist politics and argued that most progressive change took Americans deeper into a disposable, consumerist culture. The cultural freedoms that started in the ’60s set the stage for the laissez-faire ’80s. Both are a result of the constant search for something better. Lasch became something of a reactionary Leftist, wanting to turn back the clock away from the libertarian paradise both the Left and Right had agreed on in the late 20th century. Bedford Falls vs. Pottersville.
To complete the thought, Kazin’s biography of Bryan quotes another Bryan biographer, Lawrence Levine: “a liberal in one area may be a conservative in another not only at the same time but also for the same reasons.”
Personally, I do believe that populism is its own ideology and not just a style that can be equally applied to movements on the Left or the Right, as long as the language is common and is purported to speak for the “plain folks.” Count me as one who believes that populists look to the past nostalgically and without the cynicism so common with today’s reflection.* There is bitterness at the loss of trusted institutions, anger about widening inequalities and anxiety over a coarser and more disposable culture. Sometimes they get their targets wrong; they might blame gays or minorities or immigrants, but misidentifying the culprit doesn’t mean they’ve misidentified the problem.
Personal anecdote. I attended a work event a couple weeks ago at which numerous elected politicians in the state of Maryland (and all on the Left) spoke about the current legislative session. For a quick bit of background, the most liberal part of the state is Montgomery County, a wealthy D.C. suburb with towns often prefaced by the Right with the term “People’s Republic.” There are probably as many peace flags at houses as there are American flags. And several Montgomery County liberals stood up at this event, one by one, and basked in their liberalism.
One said to anticipated cheers that the current economic crisis is in part because the Bush Administration had decided to pursue two adventures in imperialism; another said proudly that he called himself a liberal rather than a progressive because “progressive” sounded like a wimpy word (he also mentioned that he shops at Fresh Fields, which kinda capped off the stereotype).
These great liberals then explained to those in attendance that we can’t extend the small tax on millionaires because too many would leave the state for Virginia. Oh, and closing the corporate tax loophole would cause companies throughout the state to pack up and leave. Ah, yes, the proud liberals who stand up and speak for the millionaires.
I left that day feeling pretty angry (which I guess, according to Chris Matthews, makes me a populist), but also with a certain clarity. It isn’t just about the cultural cues that connect liberals – toss out the word imperialism, accept the “liberal” (as opposed to progressive) label and your audience will understand you’re on their side even if you don’t act like a liberal and stand up for the middle and working classes.
This wasn’t just some nebulous feeling of sentimentality or fear or anger or any other trademark of populism; this was something concrete. Al Gore’s 2000 Convention speech echoed in my mind: “They’re for the powerful, we’re for the people.” Gore was never a natural populist and in that speech he always struck me as someone who had been given a course in Populism 101, and despite having to cram for the mid-term, ended up with a solid B+. Yeah, it was a bit cheesy, but it was as clear a dichotomy as is usually needed, and it really is the one fact Democrats need to remember.
*I can’t count the number of times someone dismissively says that “everyone thinks the past was so great, but…”; what I have actually very rarely heard is an honest comparison that acknowledges that yeah – a lot of things were better in the past.