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The Shifting, Double-edged Sword called ‘Populism’

Hell or high water, the protean, populist clamor sets disparate ordinary people against variously infamous foes.

Have you tracked the stunningly widespread shout-outs to “populism” — buoyed by libertarians, Tea Partiers, gun owners as well as progressive, socio-economic reformers? Beware any century-old, catch-all by which opportunists bludgeon some “elite,” willy-nilly, that ends up stripping “populism” of meaning except as a coded call to arms. And though fat cats get predictably bashed, how many self-declared populists deliver systemic proposals that threaten the powers-that-be? Not many. For years calling someone a “populist” was a swipe, and the left cringes when “populist” right-wingers especially militant Confederate-types, sound off — or when the GOP’s latest “true American,” Dave Brat, conquers the Cantor loaded with populist pablum.

Surprisingly, reviving the populist vision also surfaces for Democrats dreaming up their next ideal presidential nominee (a stretch for ‘Wall Street’ Hillary). Palin’s demagoguery boasts a populist pulpit, though like everything else about her it’s faked. More substantively, Jim Hightower the “Texas populist” walks the walk by nailing the opposition as “bosses, bankers, big shots, bastards and bullshitters,” smug top dogs treating ordinary people as “nothing but fire hydrants.” Occupy failed to develop follow-through but never veered from its steady taunt-the-rich, anti-elitism. Today, the most cogent “populist” scrutiny comes from the focused Warren-Sanders brigade, naming names and specifying strong penalties against renegade banksters.

Hell or high water, the protean, populist clamor sets disparate “ordinary people” against variously infamous foes: crony capitalists and predatory bosses, the Obama White House, the Federal Reserve, anything that reeks of gun control, and Koch-style billionaires funding what right and left zealots deem the new fascism. Just on cue for political crossovers, here’s the latest pleasantry from gadfly Ralph Nader entitled, “Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.” What’s truly “unstoppable” is Nader’s invention, confirming an “alliance” ready to “dismantle” (not just regulate) the bloated corporate state because — well, because some issues and some rhetoric overlap. Nader testifies to wishful thinking – that every enemy of your enemy must be your friend (and political ally). Not only does the rabid right defy the squishy left, Tea Partiers hate government so much that negotiation and compromise are routinely added to the past Seven Deadly Sins.

The Bridge to Nowhere?

Consider the Rand Paul-Ayn Rand manias against government, whether about collusion with big business, privacy violations or military belligerence, all resonating with the left. But the libertarian answer is not to fix big government but drive its shrunken corpse, sequestered down in that bathtub, off the cliff. Wall Street bailout is bad so kill the Federal Reserve. What progressive anywhere thinks the solution to bad government is much less government, thus returning power to backward states that already mangle resource regulations, abortion, voting rights, and health care? Where on big issues is there common ground: fairer taxation (not reduced for the richest)? In-depth solutions to income inequality (not default to the “free market”)? New Deal-style jobs stimulus (not trickle-down folly), plus funding basic research into alternative energy and global environmental solutions?

Libertarians already gagging on underwhelming oil and mining regulations won’t suddenly handcuff derivative excesses, hedge fund billionaires or oil polluters federally subsidized to externalize disaster costs. Anyone who shreds Obamacare as a “government takeover” (by the tyrant president) won’t hug single-payer, liberal advocates. Dream on, for the bridge between right and left has no legs, feet or toes.

Shrewd researchers, like George Lakoff and Drew Westen, prove terms matter, certainly psychologically-loaded sound bites. So high time to turn over the “populism” rock. First off, distinct historical roots separate early populism from later progressivism. Late 19th C. populism emerged from agrarian and small-town, less affluent, less educated roots, like the Grange and Farmer’s Alliance. More bottom-up then, early populism targeted urban, monopolistic robber barons and foreclosure-happy bankers in love with the gold standard. William Jennings Bryan was his generation’s most visible populist yet he typically bristled with contradictions. He blended anti-imperialism and trust-busting, support for women’s suffrage yet nativist rejection of Darwin, prohibition crusades against demon run while refusing to attack murderous southern Jim Crow racism. Less conflicted, Teddy Roosevelt, R. LaFollette and Huey Long “spoke populism” but so did the early (racist) George Wallace and white supremacist Klansmen, along with later entrants like weird Ross Perot and erratic Pat Buchanan.

Populist Scatter-gun

In short, open-ended “populism” explodes all left and right divisions, warring against elitism, plutocrats, and child labor abuses but also rum and “foreigners” (especially Asians, Catholics and Jews) with funny names and accents. Their legacy today: crazed Tea Partiers demanding “their country back” from “outsiders.” Still a fallback for opportunists and demagogues, populism all too often came down to pitting your tribal “us” against scheming, conspiratorial predator “them” out to steal your team blind.

Progressivism, in contrast, reflected more urban, college-educated, middle and upper-class populations, inclined to top-down activism (thus having to “educate masses”). The Progressive Era boasts four big constitutional amendments: the graduated income tax, popular election of senators, women suffrage, and prohibition against alcohol. The voting rights campaign pushed majority rule, elevating the initiative, referendum, and recall options. Progressives shared populist support for scientific and technological breakthroughs along with utopian dreams of a “more perfect union.” Still today, progressive forces argue effective solutions to an array of modern woes (racism, violence, racism, poverty, class warfare) demand sustained and costly governmental action (to level the playing field), better universal education, more efficient yet safer working conditions, and comprehensive environmental regulations and planning, more so than ever.

History endorses the progressive movement, with more focus and less dilution than populism, which ultimately offers not a clear political ideology but a flashy “rhetorical style.” That answers today’s opening puzzle: why both rightwing Dave Brat and Senator Warren both indict a sea of predatory, “large corporations seeking insider deals, crony bailouts, and constant supply of low-wage workers” (Brat’s language denigrating Cantor backers). That explains why Nader misleadingly characterizes Brat’s win as “a clear populist challenge by Main Street against Wall Street and by ordinary people against the corporate government with subsidies and bailouts that the Left calls corporate welfare and the Right calls crony capitalism.”

Left & Right, Longshot Alliance

True, on less promoted electoral topics (prison reform, privacy, drug reform, juvenile justice, etc.) the national wings align and right/left divisions wither. But does anyone truly think — on national medical care, oil and mining regulation, climate change, consumer protection, jobs stimulus, VA budgets, and funding scientific/medical research — that a dozen congressional Dave Brats will rush to join Warrenites and together win the day? Will the regressive House leadership ever allow open voting on immigration reform or cutting militarism just because politically-green “radicals” bellow from the back of the bus?

This essay emerged after I found the word “populism” popping up like hot dogs at all July 4 picnics. That led to separating historic populism from modern progressive politics, then the bigger gap that divides the pragmatic, frazzled left with the ideologically-reified, libertarian-Tea Party-fundamentalist crowd. For me, “progressive” holds up while the scatter gun called populism, with infinite applications, lacks leverage to pool resources or write systemic reform agendas. Perhaps left plus right alliances will form on specific issues, but overall focus must be economic top vs. bottom, publicizing why haves cannot have so much without impoverishing the have-nots and toppling the whole system. Zip codes matter more than zippy, coded “populist” jargon. There’s even one savvy billionaire who rightly reads the handwriting on the wall, were his own class to forever deny reality: “The Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats.”