Populism's Back--Why?

Roundup: Media's Take

Brad Knickerbocker, writing in the Christian Science Monitor (Feb. 4, 2004):

Fighting for the "little guy" against wealthy, powerful interests has been a staple of American politics since the first New England patriots railed against King George III's tax policies.

Today, in similar manner, the leading Democratic presidential contenders are trying to present their effort as a populist uprising against a plutocratic administration in which wealth is the basis of power. They remind voters incessantly that while Vice President Dick Cheney's old firm got large contracts for work in Iraq (some of them without bid), 3 million jobs have been lost on President Bush's watch. Or that the drug industry, oil companies, and HMOs are profiting at the expense of average Americans. Or that paychecks for middle-class and lower-income workers have lagged in comparison with managers and executives at the upper end of the pay scale.

It's not exactly class warfare, since unprecedented numbers of Americans now own stock and therefore are capitalists. But the rhetoric has taken a decidedly populist turn.

Does this message resonate with Americans, especially those who have yet to choose sides in the presidential race? A recent Time/CNN poll has 57 percent of the public (and 63 percent of independents) agreeing that Mr. Bush "pays too much attention to big business."

"A lot of Democrats see this as a new Gilded Age, with a widening gap between wage earners and the elites," says Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin. "Clearly, this sort of heightened populist rhetoric responds to [the perception that] the Bush administration is a throwback to the days before the New Deal. Bill Clinton, to a degree, revived that in 1992."

It didn't work, however, for Al Gore in 2000 (although there were other factors, like renegade Ralph Nader, not to mention a controversial Florida vote count). So why should it work for a Democrat this time?

One major difference: Mr. Gore was warning against the theoretical threat of a corporate takeover of the White House. This time, Democratic contenders say there's solid evidence that such a takeover already is under way.


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