We’re all populists now

Roundup
tags: politics, Populist



David Greenberg is a professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of a forthcoming history of political spin.

Candidates of the left, right and center have something in common: They all want to be seen as populists. Hillary Clinton attacks income inequality and issues booklets showing how well she stacks up, even against Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as a booster for the embattled middle class; Sen. Marco Rubio invokes the American dreamMike Huckabee and putative libertarian Sen. Rand Paul are against giving President Obama a free hand to negotiate the Pacific trade pact.

Meanwhile, pundits and journalists prowl for populists everywhere: Sen. Ted Cruz is a “populist egghead.” Rubio showcases “populist themes” of up-by-the-bootstraps success. Huckabee is going “full populist.” And Paul’s “populist country music video” blamed banks and Washington for lost jobs. The only top-tier contender seemingly unlinked to populism is Jeb Bush — son of one president, brother of another, backed by establishment heavies — although even his approach has been labeled “populist,” too. 

Yet these aren’t modern versions of William Jennings Bryan, fiery crusaders jousting on the campaign trail, railing against politicians who “only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous” and thereby “crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” All the candidates have taken what was once a very specific ideology and extracted their favorite parts, selectively interpreting the vision and generally bowdlerizing it. With so many different policies and philosophies vying for the label, the word “populist” is in danger of losing all meaning. If we’re all populists, it’s because populism has been stretched so thin.

Populism entered the political lexicon to describe the platform of the radical farmers’ movement of the 1880s and 1890s. The original capital-P Populists — farmers and miners squeezed by the unfettered capitalism of the Gilded Age — championed egalitarian economic policies: looser credit, nationalized railroads, breaking up the era’s dominant trusts. For a brief spell, they forged a robust party called the People’s Party, which elected candidates to dozens of statewide offices across the South and West and fused with the Democrats in 1896 to nominate Bryan for president.

As important as their economic agenda, the Populists pressed their case using a signature language and symbolism. Rooted in the ideas of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, they invoked the virtue of the common man and the malevolence of powerful elites. Moral in their tone, given to demonizing their enemies and purporting to speak on behalf of the otherwise voiceless “people,” the Populists bequeathed to later generations not only an economic philosophy but also a style and sensibility — which a variety of grass-roots movements have over the decades adopted and adapted to their own ends. You hear it today in the way Cruz rails against “political elites in Washington and New York,” or in Sen. Bernie Sanders’s impassioned descriptions of “a rigged economy, which works for the rich and the powerful.” ...




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