Michael Kazin: The Democrats' Populist Appeal





[Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University and author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan and Americanism: New Perspectives on the History of an Ideal, edited with Joseph McCartin. ]

The Democrats' big win was obviously a repudiation of Bush's war in Iraq and the hypocrisy, corruption, and ineptness of his allies in Congress. But the victors also may have taken a big step toward erasing an image that conservative Republicans pasted on them during the glory days of the Nixon administration and that has proved difficult to peel off: that of liberal elitists who are out of touch with the values and interests of ordinary Americans.

Of course, the charge was always a cynical half-truth, at best. But it seemed to fit the cultural style of such figures as John Lindsay and Ted Kennedy (at least in his younger days). And it also stuck to the likes of Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry--intelligent men who seemed more at home lecturing about policy (or going windsurfing) than empathizing with people who were afraid their hard work was not being rewarded or their families protected.

But some of yesterday's most notable Democratic winners struck populist chords with an authenticity that would have made Harry Truman proud. There was Sherrod Brown, militant champion of unions in the rustbelt, easily defeating the mild-mannered Mike DeWine for one of Ohio's Senate seats. There was Eliot Spitzer, who gained such renown bashing corporate criminals as New York's attorney general that he barely had to run a gubernatorial campaign in the state at all. And there was Jon Tester, the affable, crew-cutted farmer, who may very well unseat Montana Senator Conrad Burns, the dimwitted recipient of Jack Abramoff's largesse, in a closely contested race. All these men proved adept at turning the old charges of elitism against their opponents. In their campaigns, the Democrats seemed again to be the party the people.

And its candidates showed they were capable of challenging the GOP almost everywhere in the nation, something Republicans have been able to do since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Take, as just one example, the 3rd District of Nebraska, historically one of the most Republican bastions anywhere. The district stretches across some two-thirds of thestate. Only a few small towns break up the rural expanses that are home to prosperous hog farms, sugar beet growers, and high school football games on Friday night. A Democrat last won there in 1958. In 2004, George W. Bush carried it by a margin of three to one, and Congressman Tom Osborne, who retired this year, won it by 87 percent. Even if Osborne hadn't been a Republican, his earlier career as a football coach who won two national championships for the state university would have made him unbeatable....



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